Previously: Supes To Debate Sit/Lie Law Today
A contentious proposal in San Francisco that would ban sitting or lying on public sidewalks got its first airing before the Board of Supervisors today, with supporters arguing it would curb dangerous behavior and opponents seeing it as an attack on the homeless.
Police Chief George Gascon has proposed the sit-lie ordinance as a way to combat harassment of pedestrians and merchants by “street thugs” in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and elsewhere.
Police have cited reports of people being spat on, threatened and attacked.
Mayor Gavin Newsom on Tuesday plans to introduce two separate sit-lie ordinance proposals before the board: one would be a citywide ban, the other a ban along certain commercial corridors. His office has not yet released the specifics of each plan.
“He doesn’t want it to be used as an effort to demonize homeless people,” Newsom spokesman Tony Winnicker said today.
Winnicker said Newsom would be “open to either approach” and “wants to foster thoughtful debate and public discussion about the need for a sit-lie ordinance.”
“We’re making good progress on moving street homeless into housing and supportive services,” Winnicker said. “A sit-lie ordinance aims to address behavior problems. It’s not a homelessness issue.”
Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who called today’s hearing on the proposal at the board’s public safety committee, said he hoped it would clarify “a number of misrepresentations in the press” and “how a law like this would be applied.”
Mirkarimi and others have also questioned whether police should simply enforce anti-loitering and nuisance laws already on the books.
“The current laws are not sufficient,” San Francisco police Assistant Chief Kevin Cashman told the committee today, calling them “very cumbersome and difficult to prosecute.”
Current laws require a third party, outside of police and a suspect, to file a formal complaint and possibly appear in court. Police have said merchants are often afraid to put their name to a complaint, fearing retaliation, and small business owners don’t want to close down their businesses for several hours while they testify in court. The cases also require prosecutors to prove intent to commit a crime.
“The goal of sit-lie is not to arrest everyone, it is to change the behavior,” Cashman said. He insisted the issue “is organic, it came from the population of San Francisco.”
“We didn’t realize how popular (the ordinance) was until we started getting thousands of emails and phone calls of support,” he later said, outside the hearing room.
Reaction from members of the public speaking to the committee was mixed.
“This law criminalizes something that is not criminal,” said one woman. “Homeless people don’t scare me,” she said. “This law might be the will of the merchants, but it is not the will of the people.”
Others speakers complained of feeling intimidated and increasingly unsafe.
One man, Joseph Hall, a former security guard at Aub Zam Zam, a Haight Street bar, said he was knifed 15 times last September by several street youth when he tried to eject them from the bar for having an open container. He said the violence in the area has grown.
“It’s not about, like, lying on the street, it’s not about hanging out,” he said.
“But there is a problem when these kids are bringing weapons, and bringing all kinds of drugs,” Hall said.
Public Defender Jeff Adachi said he worried the law could find people in violation for merely sitting on one’s luggage on the sidewalk while waiting for a cab, or resting briefly on a street corner.
“We do have almost a dozen laws on the books right now that address a lot of the criminal conduct that was complained of,” he said.
Adachi said he was not prepared to oppose a sit-lie ordinance outright, but needed to see the specifics.
“I have concerns about the constitutionality of what’s been proposed thus far,” Adachi said.
Cashman said officers would be trained to enforce “the spirit of the law.”
“They’ll be looking for violations that have a negative impact on the community, and where the community wants it vigorously enforced,” he said.
The ordinance would require a warning before a citation was issued, and a further violation would be a misdemeanor, according to Cashman.
The law would be in effect between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m.
“We are not advocating denying anyone the opportunity to get some sleep,” Cashman said.
“It’s not about homelessness,” he insisted, adding that the Police Department maintains a homeless outreach program with 24 full-time officers checking on the well being of homeless people and their access to services.
Cashman said the San Francisco law would be modeled after one already in effect in Seattle, which has so far withstood constitutional challenge.
“It’s another law that will be used against homeless people,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness.
“They’re proposing a law that impacts an entire class of people, almost all who engage in no criminal activity,” Friedenbach said.
Friedenbach said such laws have been tried in San Francisco before, and end up being used to target queer youth, minorities and day laborers, as well as homeless people, who often have suffered trauma and abuse and “who really have nowhere else to go.”
“In the end, they’re just further traumatized,” she said.
While Mirkarimi said other cities, after enacting similar sit-lie laws, experienced “a deflation…that the laws were not working,” Santa Cruz Mayor Mike Rotkin, whose city enacted a sit-lie ordinance in 1994, attended today’s hearing in support of the law.
“Regular people just want to go down the street and not feel like they’re walking through the gauntlet,” Rotkin said outside the hearing.
Rotkin said that despite initial concern from homeless advocates in Santa Cruz, “The city’s gotten much, much better.”
He said complaints about people “taking over the sidewalk” came from working-class residents as well as businesses.
“I’m not a business candidate, I’m a Democratic socialist,” Rotkin said, smiling.
“We have a lot of compassionate services for people. We’re not trying to drive the homeless away,” he said.
Of those San Franciscans concerned about the proposal, Rotkin said, “I think most of them will adjust to it.”