After a lengthy and often rancorous public hearing, the Berkeley City Council agreed to place a measure on the November ballot restricting sidewalk sitting that one critic disparaged as “all stick and no carrot.”
Mayor Tom Bates' "Civil Sidewalks Ballot Measure" would bar sitting on public walkways between the hours of 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. except in medical emergencies, as part of a parade or rally, or for activities cleared with a permit.
Critics have characterized it as an attack on homeless youth. But business owners say bands of street sitters discourage customers in the downtown area, particularly along Telegraph Avenue.
“I think you are very brave to take this up,” Polly Armstrong said. “It’s not an easy job. This is the fifth or sixth time this has come up.”
A man who identified himself as a small business owner said he spoke for fellow merchants who feared if they spoke in favor of the ordinance their businesses would be vandalized.
“It’s already happened,” he said.
But many more assailed the measure as mean-spirited, a violation of civil liberties, and unlikely to improve business for downtown merchants. Speakers urged the council to open drop-in centers and expand social services, especially for youth who have aged out of the foster care system.
Ordinances are already in place prohibiting people from disrupting sidewalk traffic, selling drugs and engaging in aggressive panhandling, according to a letter to the council from ACLU legal director Alan Schlosser. In fact, a few speakers said they have already been ticketed or forced to move on by police.
“Just arresting and ticketing youth will not work,” said Frances Towns. The 97-year-old said she wanted to see a comprehensive center for homeless youth "in my lifetime."
Speakers registered their disapproval in songs and poems. A few described lives rocked by lengthy periods of homelessness beginning in childhood.
“Putting this on the ballot is the worst way to deal with this,” said Becky O’Malley. “When things get tough go after the poor is not what Berkeley is about.”
The first violation would be considered an infraction, the second a misdemeanor. But since the homeless offenders have no address, they could not receive official notices of court dates.
Bates said the city already spends $10,000 on each homeless person per year. Although he had originally set the effective date as March 1, he opted postpone the start date for four months in the face of vocal opposition, including by two council members. The period would allow for vigorous outreach by social service agencies, he said.
“We are a compassionate city,” Bates said amidst shouts from the crowd. “This will not change.”
But Councilman Max Anderson called the measure “a cowardly act,” and scoffed at the notion that it would improve business. In addition, it would place police in an untenable position, he said.
“There is pressure in times of economic downturn,” he said. “It’s easy to scapegoat in that kind of environment. This is not a courageous thing to do.”
The council voted three times to extend the meeting to accommodate the overflow crowd. After 12:30 a.m., the discussion dissolved into a verbal melee.