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Liberal Berkeley May Fine Homeless $75 for Sitting Down

A new measure up for a vote in one of America's liberal bastions would make it illegal for homeless people to sit or lie on the sidewalk.

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In March 2011, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (made up of 19 federal agencies including the Departments of Justice, Veterans Affairs, and Housing and Urban Development) “issued a report warning that such measures can be costly, ineffective and lead to lawsuits,” according to the New York Times.  The report found, “Criminalization policies further marginalize men and women who are experiencing homelessness, fuel inflammatory attitudes, and may even unduly restrict constitutionally protected liberties.”

Yet in Berkeley, and across America, criminalization measures are on the rise while shelter beds—emergency life rafts of last resort—fall victim to budget cuts. A 2012 Berkeley city manager’s report found 680 homeless people in Berkeley, with just 135 year-round emergency shelter beds to serve them; the city’s one youth shelter is only open in winter.

Against all evidence

Beyond the stereotyping and animosity toward homeless people, what is remarkable about the Berkeley sit-lie push is that it runs counter to nearly every empirical fact about business life and homelessness in Berkeley. Other than a poll showing that UC Berkeley students avoid business strips in part because of their fear of homeless people, there is not a single piece of evidence linking business struggles and street people—not one.

To the contrary, a 2010 Berkeley city manager’s report (ignored by nearly every media outlet covering Measure S) shows that business districts most frequented by homeless people  declined the least during the recession. Between 2008 and 2010, the two city corridors with the greatest presence of homeless people suffered far lower business declines than other districts where few homeless people congregate, the city report found. “The retail downturn in Berkeley occurred from the same factors that affect the whole country,” the city manager’s report concluded: “People who are unemployed or underemployed have been forced to cut back their expenditures.”

Not once did the city report mention homeless people as a cause of business slowdown—instead it cited residents’ increased shopping on the Internet and in big box chains outside of Berkeley.

Just last week, a research report by UC Berkeley Law School’s Policy Advocacy Clinic, analyzing national and local economic data associated with sit-lie laws, concluded, “we find no meaningful evidence to support the arguments that Sit-Lie laws increase economic activity or improve services to homeless people.” The report added, “we find: (1) no evidence supporting a link between the enactment of Sit-Lie ordinances and economic activity in California cities, and (2) and no evidence that homeless people negatively

impact economic activity in selected commercial zones in Berkeley.”

Another key bit of evidence largely ignored by media here: an independent San Francisco City Hall Fellows report commissioned by the city controller’s office, which found that city’s sit-lie law failed to produce any benefits for merchants, public safety, or homeless people. The 2011 report concluded that sit-lie "has, on the whole, been unsuccessful at meeting its multi-faceted intentions to improve merchant corridors, serve as a useful tool for SFPD, connect services to those who violate the law, and positively contribute to public safety for the residents and tourists of San Francisco."

Let’s replay this for a moment. Despite well-documented evidence that sit-lie doesn’t work (even on its own dubious terms), and that business declines have no relationship to homeless presence on the streets, Berkeley business leaders are spending more than one hundred thousand dollars to make sitting on a sidewalk illegal—evidence and reason be damned.

Follow the Money

While Measure S proponents have promoted a “grassroots” campaign sparked by small businesses, campaign records tell a different story. The sit-lie push is funded chiefly by real estate and developer interests. A handful of East Bay merchants have donated small amounts to the campaign—but the bulk of the $103,000 raised by sit-lie forces comes from real estate and developer interests, capital finance companies and landlords.

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