A group of young adults wakes up after spending the night on Telegraph Avenue recently. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

In a contentious meeting that lasted until the wee hours of the morning and exposed deep divisions in Berkeley, the City Council voted early Wednesday to proceed with a measure that would put a sit-lie ordinance on the November ballot.

In a 6 to 3 vote, with City councilmembers Kriss Worthington, Jesse Arreguín and Max Anderson dissenting, the council directed the city manager’s office to come back July 10 with wording for a ballot measure. The council will then have to vote again whether to actually place the measure on the November ballot, but its placement is expected.

City Council chambers and a downstairs hall were packed early in the evening with scores of people who wanted to speak for and against the measure, which would make it illegal to sit on a sidewalk in a commercial district between 7 am and 10 pm. Violators would be given two verbal warnings to get up, and if they didn’t comply, could get a $50 ticket. If voters adopt the measure in November, it would go into effect in July 2013.

The fact that Berkeley, a city long regarded as particularly welcoming to the disenfranchised, was cracking down on its homeless population, surprised many people and drew intense media attention to the measure. About 40% of Alameda County’s homeless population resides in Berkeley, far out of proportion to its size, and many of them are drawn to the city’s $3 million in services and outreach programs. In addition to those homeless because of drug and alcohol problems or mental illness, Berkeley also attracts dozens of homeless teenagers and young adults who live and sleep on the streets.

In recent weeks, perhaps as a result of a new beautification effort by downtown merchants, new homeless encampments have sprung up. While many street people used to congregate by the BART plaza at Shattuck and Center, some have moved next to the Main Library at Kittredge and Shattuck.

Numerous small merchants told the City Council that the presence of street people was hurting their businesses.

Michael Brown, who opened Green Earth Café and Bakery on Center Street a few months ago said his businesses is struggling, in part because customers and his staff do not feel safe when they get off BART or the bus and must navigate through a “scary” group of people.

“Please do not try to solve the problems of the homeless at the expense of small business,” said Brown.

But others said the sit-lie ordinance would not solve the problems of the homeless, just criminalize them and further drive a wedge between the haves and have-nots.

“The proposed sit lie ordinance will enlarge the already growing gap in privilege and opportunity between the higher and lower economic classes in our country and our community,” said Edward Maleshesky, an second year law student at Berkeley Law. “We should aspire to lift up members of our community that do not have a place to call home. Prohibiting a person from sitting or lying on the sidewalk will not solve the many underlying reasons why a person … is pushed onto the streets.”

City councilmembers finally got a chance to talk about the proposed measure right before midnight and their comments also showed just how differently the opposing sides regard the initiative, which Mayor Tom Bates just introduced two weeks ago.

“This ordinance, if we put it on the ballot, is an effort to contract civil and basic human rights and constitutional rights,” said City Councilmember Max Anderson. “It is so completely out of character with this city’s history and what most people in this city believe in. In harsh economic times people’s perceptions and their values shift somewhat because of the economic pressure. It is easy to scapegoat people in that kind of environment. It is easy to find a group of people, preferably vulnerable, without resources and without strong advocates in powerful places.”

Kriss Worthington criticized Mayor Bates for pushing through this measure without providing supporting documentation on its costs. He also questioned why alternative methods to improve commercial districts had not been considered, like allowing businesses to set up their wares outside, thus reducing the amount of space homeless people can occupy. The city could also consider limiting the number of items people place on the sidewalk, a much less draconian method of limiting the impact of the homeless.

Linda Maio said that figuring out her position on this matter was very hard but she eventually came to the conclusion that Berkeley’s efforts to help the homeless have fallen short.

“We put lots of money into services,” she said. “We’ve tried so many ways to get peoople into those services. In small ways we still fail. I don’t think you can deny there are some elements downtown and on Telegraph that do cause problems.”

Bates said that proposing a sit-lie ordinance was not an easy thing, but it did not mean that Berkeley does not care about the poor.

“I do not think anyone can characterize or should characterize the Berkeley City Council or the city of Berkeley for the fact we’re not providing services for homeless people. We do more per captita than any other city in the United States,” said Bates.

None of the other city council supporters of the measure made any comments about it.

Throughout the council’s discussion, people in the audience hissed and called out. It got so raucous at times that Bates threatened to have police take people talking out of turn away.

But the most unruly discussion actually came between councilmembers. Anderson got mad when Bates told him he could not comment further on the proposed measure.

“You ain’t the dictator around here,” said Anderson to Bates. “You start gaveling me into silence and next time I’ll bring my gavel and gavel you into silence. … Who in the hell do you think you are? You are not going to treat me like one of your little punks.”

Read the Civil Sidewalks Ballot Measure recommendation document.

Proposed sidewalk sitting ban prompts debate, protest [06.12.12]
Mayor seeks to put sit-lie ordinance on November ballot [06.01.12]
Police step up patrols on Telegraph to keep sidewalks clear [05.01.12]
Newly cleaned up downtown hopes to attract more retail [04.04.12]
Anti sit-lie campaigners take protesters to City Hall [04.27.11]

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...