Liberal Berkeley May Fine Homeless $75 for Sitting Down
Nearly half of America is poor or “near-poor,” government statistics show—below or near the poverty line, barely making ends meet. Anywhere from 1.5 million to 3.5 million Americans are homeless, and one in six children go hungry. Yet here in Berkeley, California, one of the country’s most famously liberal cities, business leaders aim to fine homeless people $75 for sitting on the sidewalk in commercial strips.
That’s right: The nationwide trend of scapegoating homeless people for business struggles and “blight” has found its way to Berkeley. With a “sit-lie” measure on this November’s ballot, Berkeley, home of the Free Speech Movement and national poster child for civil liberties, is poised to make it illegal to sit on a sidewalk in business zones. Equally startling, the proposal, Measure S—funded almost entirely by real estate and developer interests—has a chance of passing in this reputedly progressive enclave.
Think about this for a minute: in this liberal university town teeming with smart people, the “solution” devised for a chronic business recession is to outlaw sitting on a sidewalk—despite an in-depth report showing the same law in San Francisco has failed to deliver any benefits to merchants, shoppers, or homeless people.
How can such irrationality and scapegoating be possible in one of America’s most progressive cities?
In my work as communications director for the No on S campaign over the past few months, I’ve witnessed a distressing degree of anti-homeless stereotyping and a dedicated disregard for facts by sit-lie adherents who insist, above all else, that the city must “do something”—anything it seems—to remove “the homeless” from business corridors.
There are few groups left in America for whom blatant stereotyping and scapegoating is open season, year-round. A push poll by sit-lie advocates, for instance, referred to “menacing” and “marauding” homeless youth haunting city sidewalks. A pro-S article in the East Bay Express newsweekly referred to a homeless person’s belongings as “detritus,” and replayed the Reagan-era mantra of homelessness as a “lifestyle choice”—a deeply ignorant trope repeated at length in an op-ed titled, “Homeless by Choice” published by the influential UC Berkeley Daily Californian student newspaper.
How easy it then becomes to persuade voters of the need to remove scruffy “menacing” youth who are “homeless by choice,” allegedly destroying businesses and draining the budget coffers of even the most benevolent cities. Sit-lie might sound sensible when framed that way—but it’s a failed model built on a rickety edifice of inaccuracies.
Berkeley is hardly alone—some 33 municipalities across the country have enacted “sit-lie” laws, among a raft of “quality of life” measures that have made it virtually illegal to be homeless anywhere. Making homelessness illegal could be an admirable aim if focused on full employment and universal housing, but these laws instead make accessing services even harder by piling up citations and bench warrants on homeless people’s records.
A 2011 report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) found more than half of 234 American cities “prohibit begging in public places.” Another 40 percent prohibit sleeping in public places; 33 percent prohibit sitting/lying in public places; and 56 percent prohibit loitering in public places. Many cities have shut down public restrooms to remove the presence of homeless people. Increasingly, there is nowhere for a homeless person to go.
Such policies are not only heartless—they’re also ineffective and misguided. As the NLCHP report found, “Cost studies in 13 cities and states reveal that, on average, cities spend $87 per day to jail a person, compared to $28 per day for shelter.