BERKELEY, Calif. — Amber, 24, who’s been living on the streets half her life, was sitting on a sunny sidewalk in downtown Berkeley, cuddling her three-month-old puppy and talking to a friend. But if voters approve a measure the city council placed on the November ballot, sitting on the sidewalk — after a warning — could cost her $75.
“That law will give us tickets we can’t pay, then we’ll have warrants and end up in jail,” said Amber, who “spanges” — asks for spare change — to feed herself and her unborn child.
The proposed ordinance says “groups of individuals, often with dogs” are taking over Berkeley’s sidewalks, blocking and intimidating pedestrians and “potential business patrons.”
Similar to statutes in Seattle, Anchorage and Santa Cruz, San Francisco and Palo Alto, the proposed Berkeley ordinance would ban sitting on the sidewalk in commercial areas between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.
John DeClercq, Berkeley Chamber of Commerce ceo, said the law would make the city’s business districts “more welcoming.”
He told Inter-Press Service that the program would be primarily implemented by “ambassadors,” like those hired by Seattle’s Metropolitan Improvement District.
The ambassadors will make people understand that sitting on the sidewalk is “no longer appropriate in the city and they’ll change their behavior,” DeClercq said. “The ambassadors can really help people sort out what they need, where the services are,” he added.
Homeless advocates, however, predict that the ambassadors won’t help, and that law will be left to the courts and cops to enforce.
Osha Neumann, an attorney who defends disenfranchised youth in Berkeley, said most youth won’t pay citations for sitting. Many have no address to receive court date notices and to get to court without public transportation fare is difficult, he said.
When people don’t show up, they get cited for failure to appear, a warrant is issued and they can be arrested.
Once someone has a criminal record, it’s harder to get housing and employment.
“Criminalization will only drive them away from services, and more deeply alienate them,” Neumann said.
Paul Boden of the San Francisco-based Western Regional Advocacy Project said the law is similar to sundown town laws intended to exclude poor and non-white people.
“All these laws also use low-level infraction or misdemeanor offences so that the police had the authority to get you out of town,” Boden said.