Debating Berkeley’s Sit-Lie Ballot Measure

Man asleep in downtown Berkeley. (SF Homeless Project: Flickr)

Man asleep in downtown Berkeley. (SF Homeless Project: Flickr)

The city of Berkeley has a storied history of tolerance. But that attitude is being tested by Measure S, in which the tension between tolerance and notions of quality of life is coming to a head.

The ordinance would prohibit sitting on sidewalks in commercial districts between 7am and 10pm. There are certain exceptions — most notably for medical emergencies and people in wheelchairs — and a warning must be given first. After that, violators would have to pay a $75 fine or perform community service.

On KQED’s Forum show on Friday, both the Measure S supporter and opponent were clear that they are sympathetic to the homeless and their need for services. But they strongly disagreed over whether Measure S would help those in need to get food, shelter or other services.

“If this law were going to get people who needed treatment into treatment, if this law were going to get people who needed housing into housing, I would be first in line to say ‘yes,'” said Elisa Della-Piana, of the East Bay Community Law Center. But, “there’s nothing in this law that is connected to services.”

Berkeley sit-lie hearing gets rowdy (KQED News Fix, Jul 11)
Dr. Davida Coady is with Options Recovery Services, which provides intensive substance-abuse treatment to a largely homeless and formerly incarcerated population. She said sit-lie bans do help people get into treatment and pointed to success in other cities, including, she said, Santa Cruz, Seattle and Santa Monica. “We have services in Berkeley for people who are severely addicted and often have mental illness,” she said, pointing to everything from food programs to shelters.

According to the ballot measure, Berkeley will spend $2.8 million in fiscal year 2012 on services for the “homeless, mentally ill and other disadvantaged residents, including meals, shelters (and) … housing.”

Coady spends her professional life working with addicts, but is sympathetic to business owners and their complaints about people sitting and panhandling on sidewalks. “The business owners I talked to on Shattuck and Telegraph said that ‘yes, this was a major problem,'” she said.

She added that she’s a Berkeley native and used to shop small neighborhood stores, but that’s in the past. “I don’t go to Shattuck or Telegraph to shop any more,” she told the Forum audience. “I go to Solano or El Cerrito, and it’s because I don’t like the aggressive panhandling. It really bothers me. When I was on Shattuck yesterday, I had to step over a homeless person to get into a gelato store I wanted to go into.”

But Della-Piana said there are laws already on the books barring aggressive panhandling and blocking sidewalks. “This law would make it a crime to sit on the sidewalk; it makes sitting a criminal act,” said Della-Piana. “There’s nothing on the law that says it’s just homeless people…. San Francisco’s original sit-lie law was passed back in 1968. It was targeted at hippies and several years later in the 70s, it was starting to be used against LGBT folks. … Once a law is on the books, we can’t control how it’s enforced and this law would put in the hands of the police entirely who can and who can’t be in public spaces.”

Listen to the complete discussion on Forum:

  • fdr_democrat

    Thanks to KQED for presenting this discussion of this important issue. I would have liked to have had more fact-checking of the guests’ assertions, and I appreciate the fact-checking that did occur.

  • Rex

    No, Kern County are sick of having the homeless dumped in our county, that’s what LA County did with Skid Row, except they put the homeless on a bus and dumped them in Bakersfield.