Debated Measure S Aims to Clean Up Commercial Sidewalks
When Berkeley citizens enter the polling booth on November 7, they will vote on the contentious Measure S, otherwise known as the Berkeley Civil Sidewalks Measure.
The measure proposes to make it illegal to sit on Berkeley’s commercial sidewalks between 7am and 10pm in an effort to make local shopping districts more inviting to the public. The first violation after a warning would result in a $75 dollar fine or community service, and subsequent citations would possibly lead to incarceration.
The controversy surrounding the measure reached a tipping point when it was approved for the municipal ballot at a dramatic Berkeley City Council meeting on July 10. The meeting culminated in a disputed vote after midnight while over one hundred protesters occupied the city chamber, singing and clapping.
Since its inception, the measure has been the focus of a heated debate between those who see it as an ineffective solution to a larger problem as well as a violation of civil rights, and those who feel it would help Berkeley’s commercial districts become more shopper–friendly during an economic downturn.
“Measure S is harmful to homeless people,” said Bob Offer–Westort, campaign coordinator for the Berkeley Stand Up for the Right to Sit Down Coalition — a coalition formed earlier in the year to protest the measure.
According to Offer–Westort, most citations for sitting on commercial sidewalks during business hours will result in bench warrants for the cited homeless people, which results in their loss of access to public housing.
“We know this measure is not going to work, but we end up spending time on this instead of addressing real business problems like big box stores in Emeryville,” said Offer-Westort, who said that most of the funding for the measure comes from commercial landlords, not from small businesses.
However, many local business owners have voiced their support of the measure and their concern with the groups of homeless people that occasionally set up encampments outside their stores. Employees at the Thai restaurant Pin Toh, on the corner of Kittredge St. and Shattuck Ave. next to the semi-permanent homeless camp by the corner’s bus stop, said they believe their business is negatively impacted by the noise, smell, and smoke that comes from the homeless nearby. Additionally, they said their neighbors, a Tibetan store called Om Treasures, has had merchandise stolen by the homeless people that sit outside their store.
Employees at the Adidas store on Telegraph Ave., however, have not seen their business affected by the many homeless people that sit on the sidewalks of the Telegraph shopping district.
“The homeless people have a right to be here,” said an employee at the Adidas store. “It’s a public right.”
George, a homeless man who regularly sits on Telegraph, said that if the law passes, he, along with most of the other homeless people he knows, would simply stop sitting on the sidewalk. However, he was not optimistic that the measure will pass in the first place.
“I’d be pretty surprised if they pass the measure,” said George, “because people are making such a big deal about not passing it.”
Additionally, George said he comes from a town in Iowa with a similar sit-lie measure that has been effective. Sit-lie laws also exist in San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Seattle, and Santa Monica, and proponents of the measure say have worked — although Offer-Westort said a recent survey conducted in San Francisco revealed that the law was not effective.
Another concern with the measure is how easily the measure could be used to discriminate against homeless people, although the language of the measure states that “the intent of the voters is not to criminalize persons for sitting on the sidewalk given that other options are available” including benches and city parks and that law would “not discriminate against homeless, mentally ill or other residents of the City based on their status.” If the measure becomes law and is applied equally, police officers could fine high school students for sitting on the sidewalk during lunch or after school.
“If the police do enforce it thoroughly, then students will get citations,” said Offer-Westort — who said he does not believe police or courts will actually do this to students. “But if it’s going to be enforced unfairly, why are we asking for that kind of law?”