Carmen Francois, a downtown Berkeley Ambassador, talks to someone on Shattuck Avenue. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Carmen Francois was on a mission.

“We’re supposed to say hi to 60 people in 60 minutes,” she said.

Francois, one of Berkeley’s downtown “ambassadors,” didn’t have any trouble meeting the quota. She ducked into businesses and greeted employees by name, asking if they had any safety issues. She waved to police officers and directed tourists. She hugged homeless panhandlers, asking if they had gotten in touch with the Berkeley Mental Health Center counselor she had recommended the previous week. She pointed others toward the nearest public shower.

For the last three years, Francois has been walking up and down Shattuck Avenue interacting with those who spend their days sitting on blankets or leaning against walls, part of a larger effort to make downtown a more amenable area. But her stomping grounds have now become the center of a new debate: whether or not Berkeley should adopt a measure that makes it illegal to sit on the sidewalk in a commercial district between 7 am and 10 pm.

Mayor Tom Bates proposed an ordinance to ban sitting on sidewalks during those hours in mid-June and the City Council is expected to vote on July 10 to place it on the November ballot. Violators of the ban would get two warnings to stop sitting on the street and then would face a $50 fine.

Lance Gorée, the operation manager of the Downtown Berkeley Association, which has long pushed for a ban on sitting (the city currently has a ban on lying on the sidewalk), said the point is to target bad behavior, not homeless people. He said homeless people are not necessarily the main perpetrators of the kind of activity the ordinance is designed to prevent, and it is unlikely unobtrusive sidewalk dwellers will be punished.

“I think people are making a big mistake referring to this as a homeless issue,” Gorée said. “There’s just certain types of behavior that can’t be tolerated, especially in public areas when everybody in the city pays taxes for it. It’s done by a lot of different people. Adding the ‘sit’ to the ‘lie’— because the ‘lie’ is already there — just gives the police another tool to use,” he said.

“It’s not a homeless issue, it’s a behavioral issue,” said Francois, a team leader of the 16 ambassadors in neon green shirts now stationed downtown. “We have a lot of people who come in from Oakland because it’s illegal to panhandle there. A lot of them do really horrible stuff, like urinate and defecate right at doorways. We know they’re housed and they just come here to make extra money.”

James Armstrong may no longer be allowed to sit on Shattuck Avenue if a sit-lie ban is passed in November. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

But critics of the proposed sit-lie ban say that whether it’s intended to or not, the ordinance would affect the dozens of homeless people who set up camp in the commercial district.

“You’re just going to funnel people into the judicial system,” said Ed Kaz, a homeless man who graduated from Berkeley High School in 1976 and has lived on and off in the city since. “They should be focusing their energy and money on more shelters and services instead of policing things.” He said the three homeless shelters in the city are not sufficient.

Francois said that the recent closure of the McGee Avenue youth shelter, whose harm-reduction philosophy and later curfew was appealing to many adolescents, displaced a large population of kids. But she said many of the homeless people she works with choose not to use the services that remain in the city.

“Berkeley has a lot to offer if you utilize it,” she said. “The homeless can get off the streets, but they want to live out here. They’ve heard that Berkeley is homeless-friendly, that you can come here, hang out in People’s Park, and get high. A lot of kids come here just for that purpose. We’re not against the homeless — they all talk to us. Some of those kids are like my kids. But if they want to sit in front of a business to get money, if they think it’s okay to block the entrance, you can’t do that.”

Gorée said it is this type of problematic behavior that would be targeted under a sit-lie ban, and not inconspicuous sidewalk dwelling. “We’re not talking about ticketing somebody for sitting down. I’m sure, because I’ve talked to police,” he said.

The sitting proposal comes on the heels of the January launch of a $1.2 million campaign to revitalize downtown Berkeley. The “Big Splash” project, part one of a five-year plan, involved expanding the neon-clad ambassador team from five to 16. (Francois was one of the original ambassadors.) Although the ambassadors are all locally based, the program is overseen by the Kentucky firm Block by Block, which has organized similar clean-ups in several cities.

There are cleaning ambassadors and hospitality ambassadors, whose job is to “greet people, give directions, and help businesses with the problems they encounter,” Francois said. “Say there’s someone drunk in a business. Call the police and it might take them a long time to get there. We come right away and usually know the person, so we’re a liaison between the business and the police. No one goes to jail and the problem is dealt with.”

Francois said that because most of the downtown homeless recognize her, they are more likely to respond to her direction than a police officer’s.

“They’re great liaisons,” said Julia Washburn, the manager at Crossroads Trading Company. “They come in here every day and give you an update on if there’s any crime in the area. They know all the local people.”

There are cleaning ambassadors and hospitality ambassadors, but all employees are trained in both fields. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Romi Manchanda recalled Francois chasing after a man who stole from the AT&T Parrot store he manages. “If every city had people like them, the crime would be much lower,” he said.

Ambassadors are trained by mental health and homeless outreach services, and are given a quota of four beds to fill each night at city shelters. According to Gorée, ambassadors made 111 referrals to shelters and other social services between April and the first week of June. Though referrals were not previously recorded, Gorée said he is certain the number increased significantly with the hiring of additional ambassadors. Francois is frequently approached by homeless people asking for such assistance, and has written job references for homeless teenagers.

But James Armstrong, a writer who refers to himself as “the world’s busiest homeless man,” said Francois is an anomaly. While she truly cares about people, “the rest are pushing an agenda,” he said.

According to Armstrong, the sit-lie ban would be just another move in a series of “baby steps to the right.” He said that before they decided as a group to relocate to a park, a group of homeless teenagers living on the corner of Shattuck and Kittredge were constantly told to move by the ambassadors and others. He said the ambassadors violated the kids’ civil rights.

“You may not like what you see, and you many not feel good about it…you may fear for your safety (unwarranted, in my opinion), but that is not a crime they are perpetrating upon you,” Armstrong wrote on his Facebook page. “That is you having to deal with your own issues and not project them outwardly at these kids who are not breaking any existing Berkeley city law or ordinance.”

Kaz thinks that the ambassadors often overstep their bounds. “They should hand out fliers saying, ‘Don’t do this, don’t sit here,’” because they’re consistently admonishing people, he said. “It’s a great concept but it’s mismanaged. Somewhere down the line it fell through the cracks. They’re just out here to harass homeless people.”

Other homeless people appreciate the ambassadors’ stepped-up involvement. “If I had a business I wouldn’t want a bunch of people sitting in front of my store, some of them intoxicated,” said a man who has been selling Street Spirit newspapers in the city for seven years and asked to be referred to as J.B. “If they’re in the way of regular pedestrians it becomes a problem.”

“We’re hospitality ambassadors,” Francois said. “I’m here to make you feel welcome and safe — that’s what my job is. I try to do everything I can to help the homeless. But they’ve got to want it. And if you’re aggressive and make people uncomfortable, that’s not okay. I’ll refer them to the police.”

Sit-lie ordinance progresses towards November ballot [06.13.12]
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]

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...