Haight-Ashbury merchants tired of aggressive panhandling in the
birthplace of the 'Summer of Love' back an ordinance that would ban
sitting or lying on sidewalks citywide from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
By Lee Romney
May 10, 2010
Reporting from San Francisco
Tourists flock to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood for
people like the poem guy, who sets up a folding chair and typewriter
and composes on demand in exchange for a little cash. Then there's
the edgy puppet guy and the countless street musicians who lounge on
the sidewalk with a change cup nearby.
But the birthplace of the "Summer of Love" has also become a magnet
for homeless youths who have blocked merchants' doorways and
intimidated passersby with aggressive taunts, unpredictable dogs and
even a few assaults.
The behavior, decried as thuggish by Mayor Gavin Newsom, is the
catalyst for a proposed ordinance that would ban sitting or lying on
sidewalks citywide from 7 a.m. to 11 pm.
"We're dealing with behavior creating real and chronic conditions
where progressive liberals have had enough," said Newsom, who
recently moved to Ashbury Heights, a warren of handsome Victorians
above Haight Street. "People with earrings in their nose and tattoos
on their neck are saying, 'We've got to do something.' "
A host of cities nationwide including Los Angeles have similar
laws, many less sweeping. Seattle's ordinance withstood a 1st
Amendment challenge in federal court. Portland's was struck down
under Oregon law. But in this dense and politically liberal city, the
proposal has sparked a debate on civil rights, civil behavior and the
Haight's changing character.
A Board of Supervisors committee is scheduled to take up the ban
Monday. The panel could reduce its scope, but Newsom has vowed to
take it to the ballot if lawmakers water it down or reject it.
At a recent hearing, Public Defender Jeff Adachi showed photos of
tourists sitting on suitcases and kids resting. If the law were
equally applied as the Constitution requires, he contends, they and
countless others the poem guy and the puppet guy included would
risk violation daily.
Adachi and others contend that the discretion police say they intend
to use leaves too much leeway for profiling of the down-and-out.
Opponents cite existing laws that police could use to crack down on
blocked sidewalks, aggressive panhandling or assaultive behavior.
"If there are a few bad apples behaving inappropriately, they should
deal with that," said Tommi Avicolli Mecca, who played his guitar on
Castro Street in a citywide protest last month to oppose the
ordinance. "But to take away the civil rights of everyone in the city
is not the way to go."
The Democratic Party Central Committee recently voted to oppose the
ban, and the Planning Commission noted that it is at odds with the
city's stated commitment to encourage the use of sidewalks and
converted parking spaces as gathering zones.
Proponents counter that police use discretion daily with infractions
like jaywalking and can be trusted to enforce this ordinance selectively.
The ordinance calls for an initial warning. A first offense is an
infraction, and repeat violations are misdemeanors that can earn
offenders up to $500 in fines and 30 days in jail. Parks, plazas and
public benches remain legal resting places.
Assistant Police Chief Kevin Cashman said warnings have largely
reduced problems in other cities with comparable laws, and he expects
to cite people "very, very rarely."
He said existing laws have "shortcomings," with some requiring the
aggrieved party to step forward problematic because of fears of
retaliation and others demanding too much police time in an era of
History has shadowed the debate. A similar law was used in the 1970s
to target gay men. And law-and-order Mayor Frank Jordan tried to pass
a virtually identical one in 1994. The late San Francisco Chronicle
columnist Herb Caen, noting that it aimed to keep "the street people
on their feet and moving briskly in all directions," called it "a
bummer." Voters rejected it.
But in a citywide poll conducted in February for the Chamber of
Commerce, 71% of respondents said they would support an ordinance
that "would prohibit individuals from sitting or lying on the
sidewalk, blocking or harassing pedestrians during specific hours."
The ordinance under debate deals only with sitting and lying.
On a recent day, a homeless man named Randall gathered with friends
on Masonic Street in the historic neighborhood.
"We're all from broken homes, there's reasons why we're here," he
said, adding that most of them cause no trouble. "All these rich
people in these houses live in the Haight-Ashbury because it used to
be cool. But now they don't want us here anymore."
To Ted Loewenberg, president of the Haight-Ashbury Improvement Assn.,
that about sums it up. The Haight is now one of the city's most
affluent neighborhoods, he said, with a growing number of homeowners
and families "real people living real lives."
The passive panhandlers of yesterday were well-tolerated, but recent
arrivals have gathered in groups, demanding money and berating those
who refuse or give too little, he said.
On a blue-sky Saturday, Loewenberg strolled past one young man in a
group, holding a sign asking for "cash, grass and hash." Loewenberg
stepped around them without incident.
The ordinance, he said, would allow officers to "on the spot look at
people who are more problematic than others and disperse a situation
that could be problematic."
Therein lies the concern.
"What bothers me is because people feel intimidated by certain people
in the street based on appearance that we have to make sitting
illegal," said Colleen Rivecca of the Homeless Youth Alliance, which
serves many of the Haight Street kids.
In Los Angeles, a citywide ordinance applies from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Police warn the downtown homeless at 6:01 a.m. and cite or arrest
those who refuse to move, said Deputy City Atty. Songhai
Miguda-Armstead. Her office said 193 misdemeanor cases were filed
last year, and 29 so far this year. Police have also issued numerous
citations handled directly by the courts.
Miguda-Armstead says social workers sometimes enter the booking room
after arrests and offer youths a chance to accept services instead,
such as shelter or addiction counseling. Newsom said he believes San
Francisco's ordinance would be a similar stick to prod resistant
youths into meaningful programs.
Some merchants feel they have no other option.
Kent Uyehara, a fourth-generation San Franciscan, has run his FTC
skateboard shop here for 15 years. Lately he has dealt with youths
blocking his doorway, swearing at him and failing to clean up after their dogs.
"This is a tolerant neighborhood, but why should we be tolerant of
people who don't want to respect anyone else?" Uyehara asked. "We're
not extreme ideologues. We're just San Franciscans who love this city."