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.
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.
Among the top contributors to Measure S is Panoramic Interests, LLC (donor of $10,000)—a major infill developer and landlord which, according to its website, “was the largest private landlord of UC Berkeley students" from 2004 to 2007. Other big checks came in from First Shattuck, LLC, a commercial real estate company ($10,000), and $5000 from Constitution Square, a real estate management firm based in San Rafael. Another $3500 in pro-S money came from Townsend II, LLC, a capital management company in San Francisco.
A little sanity and humanity
In a sane and humane society, the sit-lie push goes against both heart and mind. Yet our culture has become fixated on separation from discomforting realities and “inconvenient truths.” We send drone planes to do “our” dirty work abroad (even some local police departments are seeking drones now). We fortify borders with fences and paramilitary outfits to stifle immigration, as if such armaments in any way address emigration’s roots in poverty and economic desperation. And cities across America, now even Berkeley, seek to disappear homeless people via legal fiat instead of by creating job opportunities and housing.
Berkeley may well pass Measure S, as liberal San Francisco did in 2010. And, facts being facts, homelessness and poverty will persist. Homeless people will continue to be just like everyone else, except without a roof over their heads. Some will be “aggressive” in their efforts to stay alive; others will hide and seek a quiet survival. “They” will smell bad, as logic would dictate, lacking showers or laundry money. Some will yell, others will cry, some will ask for money.
I ask you to ask yourself: what society is this that demonizes and disregards its poorest residents—the very ones who need the most help? How have we devolved to the point where making sitting on a sidewalk illegal is deemed a solution to anything—even when it’s been proven a failure?
It’s time to draw a line in the sand: No more crackdowns on homeless people. Housing and employment are cheaper—and far more humane and just—than harassing and incarcerating the poorest of the poor.
PS—please visit www.noonsberkeley.com to learn more about the Berkeley sit-lie fight.
Christopher D. Cook, an award-winning journalist and author, worked as communications director for the No on S campaign in Berkeley. His work has appeared in Harper’s, The Economist, the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere. His website is www.christopherdcook.com.