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How effective are sit/lie laws?

Kyung-Jin Lee

Walk along commercial corridors like Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, and you’ll see a kaleidoscope of color and activity: stores and street vendors, tourists, hippies and the homeless.

Many shop owners complain about how some homeless people create an uncomfortable atmosphere for shoppers. Berkeley voters passed an aggressive ballot initiative back in 1994, which included provisions against panhandling six feet from a business. But after challenges from civil rights and homeless advocates, the city council repealed its own law.

Today, Berkeley is once again considering diverting homeless people away from economic hubs. The Civil Sidewalks Ordinance, or Measure S, would prohibit anyone from sitting on commercial district sidewalks from 7am to 10pm – it’s already illegal to lie down. After a warning, violators would face a $75 citation or community service. Subsequent violations would result in a misdemeanor.

From Santa Monica to Seattle, several cities on the West Coast have enacted similar laws; but we don’t have to look farther than across the Bay to see how it affects both homeless people and the communities in which they live. San Francisco began enforcing its Sit/Lie Ordinance in March 2011.

During his regular beat in the Haight-Ashbury district, San Francisco police officer Francisco Rodriguez sees a young lady sitting on the corner of Haight and Cole streets with her bags. He pulls over and asks if she knows about the Sit/Lie Ordinance. 

She responds by asking if she’s not allowed to panhandle. Rodriguez says no, and gives her a verbal warning after hearing that she and a companion just arrived in town.

“It’s only a warning, so now you guys know,” Rodriguez says. “I guess you guys are pretty new to the area.”

San Francisco’s Sit/Lie Ordinance makes it illegal for people to sit or lie on a city sidewalk between 7am and 11pm. A citation can be issued only after a written warning. If someone receives two infractions within 24 hours, it turns into a misdemeanor. Since enforcement began last March, San Francisco police have issued at least 306 citations.

Just about half of the tickets came out of Park Station, which covers the Haight and its many shops. An independent report released back in March found 60 percent of merchants say the law has not helped to reduce loitering around their businesses.

Instead, both the police and many homeless people here say the Sit/Lie Ordinance has changed street culture into a cat and mouse game.

Thirty-one-year-old Derrick Gomez has lived in San Francisco on and off for the past seven years. He recently came back to the Haight and says it only took a few days to encounter an officer.

“I was sitting down talking to a kid, I was having my coffee,” he says. “It was literally breakfast – 7:30, 8 a.m – just kneeled down to talk to a kid. A cop just happened to roll up, just assumes that I’m homeless and whatnot.”

Gomez says he pretended not to know about the ordinance, and when the officer didn’t see his name on a list of offenders, she let him go with a warning. But he says the mere presence of cops leaves him on edge.

“Even when I see them, I just feel guilty already,” says Gomez. “What am I doing wrong for them to come to me already?”

As we sit and talk near the Golden Gate Park’s entrance on Haight and Stanyan, two squad cars pull up about 300 feet away. The officers get out to question someone. Soon after, Gomez notices more cops.

“That’s too many cops for this little amount of people. It’s a waste of money,” says Gomez.

Park Station Lt. Mike Caplan says the changing dynamics of the neighborhood means his officers mostly deal with quality of life issues these days.

“It’s the old versus the new,” he says. “I guess the homeless folks we deal with are like the offshoot of the old summer of love. Then we have the yuppies, the up-and-comers that are paying the big money for the old Victorians. So it’s a conflict where you have the merchants and the residents versus the hippies and the homeless. And we’re right in the middle.”

Caplan and officer Francisco Rodriguez show me the 12-page list of Sit/Lie violators. Rodriguez points out the repeat offenders.

The independent report states 90 percent of all Sit/Lie citations from Park Station were issued to repeat offenders. Of those, four people received more than half of the total tickets. At least two of them spent weeks in jail after ignoring the multiple infractions.

Caplan says it can take a long time for some people to change. And he thinks punishment can provide the impetus.

But Jennifer Friedenbach says the Sit/Lie Ordinance is counterintuitive in its response to solving the homeless problem. She’s the director for the Coalition on Homelessness.

“What typically happens is people get ticketed, they’re not able to pay the fine, they’re going to warrant and they’re going to end up doing some jail time,” says Friedenbach. “We have about 27 percent of our jail population, at the last look, were people who were homeless who committed no crimes except for being poor.”

The independent report on the Sit/Lie Ordinance found violators have generally not been offered concrete referrals for health care and social services, which is an integral part of the law.

“It doesn’t mean people are getting services, and obviously they’re not going to because they don’t exist,” says Friedenbach. “There isn’t capacity in the system to help folks.”

The only referrals most violators get are to phone services at 311 and 211, printed on the back of written warnings and Friedenbach says that doesn’t help them get off the streets.

“There’s 37,000 on the wait list for housing in San Francisco,” she says. “Hundreds and hundreds on the waitlist for substance abuse treatment. It takes 17 hours a day to get to shelter beds and over half of the people after 17 hours trying to get a shelter bed are turned away only to have to try again at 3am.”

Some city officials agree the current system needs improvements. Bevan Dufty is the mayor’s advisor on homelessness. While he didn’t support the measure himself, he accepts the will of the people who passed the ballot measure. But he doesn’t think police should be forced to hand out referrals either.

“The cops have laws to enforce,” says Dufty. “They don’t have a whole lot of options.”

Dufty points out the Sit/Lie law is part of many city initiatives to address homelessness. He points to the Mobile Assistance Patrol program, or MAP, which transports people between shelters and other services, giving them more options than just loitering on the streets.

“The MAP van drivers and our outreach team are really being blended in a way that people are going to see a difference,” says Dufty. “And we are going to focus on those individuals.”

In the meantime, Sit/Lie has succeeded in detracting many homeless people from gathering on Haight Street, but it has yet to help solve the problems they face to get back on their feet.

Berkeley’s Measure S differs slightly from San Francisco’s law. There are increased protections for the homeless through the use of ambassadors, not cops, as frontline enforcers. But there are also increased consequences. A second violation, regardless of whether it’s within 24 hours, can lead to a misdemeanor charge.

And if San Francisco’s experience is any indication, Berkeley’s homeless problem won’t go away with the passage of Measure S. Rather, a small number of homeless people will accrue repeated citations and misdemeanor charges, while many will shift between neighborhood parks and the street as they try to evade the new law.