When San Franciscans head to the polls in November, they will be facing a measure that may redefine the city’s social makeup and alter its identity as a free-loving, interestingly offbeat cultural hub.
In a city where homelessness is just as much a part of the landscape as the steep streets and trolley cars, Mayor Gavin Newsom is making poverty a ballot issue, proposing an ordinance that would ban sitting and lying on public sidewalks for the majority of the day.
The sit/lie ordinance, which if passed, would make sidewalks available to only foot traffic between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m., has become a contentious political and legal issue in the Bay Area, striking conflicting moral chords across the city.
Mayor Newsom’s initial proposal was voted down eight-to-three by the Board of Supervisors earlier this month. Supervisor of the Richmond district, Eric Mar, characterized the proposal as “unnecessary and over broad, and violation people’s civil rights.” The mayor countered his defeat with the Board by making the ordinance a ballot measure.
The proposal was born in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, a commercial and residential area famed for its heyday during the “Summer of Love” as a hippie haven and a locale that, for many, holds the spirit of San Francisco. The Haight draws a number of street dwellers, and violence and harassment complaints from residents and shop owners began the crusade.
A grassroots group, called the Coalition for Civil Sidewalks, has formed to garner support for the ordinance. According to the campaign’s website, they are a “group of families, residents and small merchants who believe that sidewalks should be a safe place for our children, elderly and disabled.” The coalition calls those that do not support the proposal “opponents of civility.”
A poll to asses voter concerns conducted in February by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce revealed that 71% of the 500 citizens surveyed would support the sit/lie ordinance.
Bob Offer, the civil rights organizer and editor of the street newspaper Street Sheet, published by the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco, said the poll was misleading, “describing laws that already exist and not asking critical questions.”
Also among the results, 51% believe San Francisco is going in the wrong direction, as opposed to 47% saying it was going in the right direction last year.
However, ratings on issues such as homelessness and panhandling, crime and drugs, and housing have improved.
In step with the poll, Maurice Lee, the manager of Wasteland, a clothing store on Haight Street, said he noticed that violence and homelessness has been less of a problem in the past year and that eight out of 10 times, there are no problems. However, he supports the sit/lie ordinance as a “law to fall back on and a formal control mechanism.”
“It would be convenient,” Lee said. “The police are great but there is only so much they can do. It’s not solving the problem but keeping it controlled.”
Lee said the occasional disruption comes in waves and the congregations are overwhelming during lulls. “We have a big door that is open all the time. Ten people, dogs, and trash are splayed outside leaving messes and stains…they don’t leave and there’s power in numbers. Those times are more difficult.”
Joe Goldmark, the owner of Amoeba Music on Haight Street, also plans on voting for the sit/lie proposal, to “give police one more arrow in their quiver” to handle those who are excessive and abusive.
Opponents like Offer, however, believe that the ordinance will instead give law enforcement “another tool to harass and make the act of being homeless criminal.”
Supervisor Mar, who voted against the proposal, agreed that the measure would elicit prejudice and target specific groups.
“It would allow police and law enforcement to discriminate in many ways against people who are poor or really vulnerable groups, like day laborers,” he said. Mar continued that the city already has laws to protect people’s safety and stop aggression on the streets.
Opponents of the sit/lie ordinance are protesting by doing just that: sitting and lying. Mar has observed many “creative protests” of advocacy and grassroots groups drawn outside “to protest how ridiculous the effort is.”
Since the mayor proposed the issue, there have been multiple celebrations of public space around the city, from large barbeques on the sidewalk to outdoor yoga and chalk drawing classes to a couple of friends lounging in front of their apartments on lawn chairs and beach towels in pseudo-sit-ins.
“The sidewalk is not just for transit,” Offer said of opponents reclaiming the concrete.
“This hits at the very core of human rights and civil liberties.”
According to Offer, there have been massive cuts to programs that aid the homeless, “eviscerating adequate services” such as shelter beds and personnel, making Mayor Newsom’s proposal hypocritical for driving people off the streets with nowhere to go.
There is only one shelter in the Haight and it has few beds and is solely for youth. It is only accessible via the Tenderloin district, an area with a very high crime rate.
A number of other West Coast cities have enacted similar laws. Seattle, Santa Cruz, Palo Alto, and Berkeley all have passed variations of the sit/lie ordinance. However, according to a report by San Francisco’s CBS5, the Berkeley ban on sitting has been largely ineffective and difficult to enforce.
No such laws seem to be on the horizon for Boston as homeless organizations and an official in the mayor’s office appeared unaware of such efforts, though no official word was given.
According to a copy of the legislation obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle, violators of the ordinance would first be issued a warning. Repeat offenders could face up to $500 in fines, misdemeanor charges, and a month in jail.
There are a number of exceptions to the ordinance, such as wheelchair use, children in strollers, and street festivals. Public parks, beaches, and plazas are not included in the law.
Given the heated emotions surrounding the issue, the sit/lie ordinance is likely to be a close fight in the city by the bay.
Goldmark said he thinks the measure will pass but not by an overwhelming margin. Offer hopes it will go the other way. “I don’t know by how much, but hopefully it will be in our favor and we beat this campaign.”
Supervisor Mar said it is likely to be a battle between big business and conservative forces versus advocacy and civil rights groups. “The sit/lie ballot measure is an attack on poor and low-income people in our city. It will not make us safer and it’s really a political effort to get more conservative voters out to the polls.” Newsom, a Democrat, is running for lieutenant governor of California in the same November election.
“The mayor’s ill-conceived policy is a crackdown that is against civil liberties and values of compassion and social justice that we believe in in San Francisco,” Mar said.