Berkeley’s long-held legacy as a stronghold of civil rights, tolerance and compassion for the poor has been tarnished, perhaps irrevocably, by the decision of Mayor Tom Bates and his City Council allies to place Measure S on the November 6, 2012, ballot. Measure S, the Berkeley Sit-Lie Ordinance, would outlaw sitting on sidewalks in business districts from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
While Berkeley’s civic leaders were forfeiting any claim to being a bastion of human rights, the state of Rhode Island reminded the formerly progressive Bay Area what a true respect for human rights really means when it passed the Homeless Bill of Rights on June 22.
Rhode Island’s Homeless Bill of Rights declares forthrightly that “homeless people have the same rights as everyone else.” This new law prohibits government employees, police and landlords from treating homeless people unfairly just because they are unsheltered. It states without equivocation that “Homeless people have the right to equal treatment from state and municipal governments.”
Two other important provisions might be of special interest to Mayor Bates and the downtown business associations supporting the proposal to ban sitting.
The Rhode Island bill protects two extremely significant rights that Berkeley officials are trying their hardest to abolish. The law states: “Homeless people have the same right to use public spaces as everyone else,” and “Homeless people have the same right to privacy in their personal property that housed people have.”
Berkeley already has a long, sad history of criminalizing poor people for the supposed crime of being “homeless in public.” Instead of upholding the “right to privacy in their personal property,” Berkeley police have all too often confiscated and destroyed the property of homeless people.
In June, after Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed the Homeless Bill of Rights into law, state legislators joined homeless advocates in celebrating the bill at the Statehouse. At that celebration, John Joyce, one of the authors of the new law, said “Today, in Rhode Island, hatred, bigotry and discrimination is not accepted.”
Think for a moment what Joyce’s statement means in relation to Berkeley’s Measure S. In championing this law to banish homeless people, Bates and his allies are doing nothing less than stirring up “hatred, bigotry and discrimination” against the poorest citizens.
Rhode Island State Sen. John Tassoni sponsored the Homeless Bill of Rights and said that he hoped the rest of the nation pays close attention to his state’s new law, singling out California by name. State Sen. Tassoni said, “Hopefully other states will now pick up the slack and move this all the way across the country to California.”
Instead of heeding this message and using their power to ensure that Berkeley respects the human rights of all its citizens, Mayor Bates and his allies on the City Council have called on our worst instincts and launched an effort to deny human rights to the poorest of the poor.
In November 2010, San Francisco voters narrowly passed a similar ordinance banning sitting and lying on sidewalks. Last May, a new report released by City Hall Fellows reported that San Francisco’s sit-lie law has proven almost entirely ineffective in preventing homeless people from resting outside.
Even worse, the report by City Hall Fellows found that police were ticketing the same few homeless people over and over and over — specifically, they were targeting “an older homeless population, many of whom suffer from both mental and physical health conditions.”
Is that any way for a progressive city to behave — making life even harder for an aging and often sick and disabled homeless population? Is that the path that Berkeley voters will choose?
A compelling answer was offered by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness in a report entitled “Searching Out Solutions: Constructive Alternatives to the Criminalization of Homelessness.”
The report noted that cities only add to the severe hardships faced by homeless people when they pass laws banning sleeping, sitting or panhandling in public places.
One wishes that this report would be assigned as mandatory reading by the political leaders in Berkeley City Hall. In a passage that touches on Berkeley’s attempt to pass laws that criminalize homelessness, the report states:
“Communities implement these measures as a way to broadcast a zero-tolerance approach to street homelessness and to attempt to reduce the visible signs of homelessness. Criminalization policies, however, are not a solution to the problem of homelessness and are often costly and consume substantial state and local resources.”
Since criminalizing the poor is so unlikely to achieve the desired results, the report concludes that it is far better policy for city officials to spend their resources on “safely housing and stabilizing vulnerable individual and families.”
The U. S. Interagency Council points out another fallacy in Berkeley’s attempt to ban sitting. When people are cited and fined for sitting down, or other essential, unavoidable activities, it only makes it more difficult for homeless people to find employment, housing and social services.
At present, homeless people in Berkeley have no choice but to sit on city sidewalks during the day. People who live on the streets don’t have the same choices as to where to sit that middle-class folks enjoy. Shelters force people to leave early in the morning, and living rooms, sofas and recliners are in scarce supply on city streets.
The real purpose of this ordinance is to drive an entire class of people out of public spaces. In an open, democratic society, these public spaces belong to all of us, not just to business interests.
It would be a monumental betrayal of human rights to stand by while a few affluent business organizations attack a vulnerable minority. Doing so will only erode the human rights of all of us.
We often feel helpless when confronted with the epic scale of modern homelessness. But can it ever be right to see a brother or sister in need — hungry, ill-clad, destitute and homeless — and then unleash the police on them, merely for existing?