The late 1960s in San Francisco were days of rock ‘n’ roll, peace, love and a lot of psychedelic drugs. Those days transformed the city, especially the corner of Haight and Ashbury. Even though that time made this corner the famous home of hippie subculture, it was also an era of drug abuse and homelessness in this neighborhood. The fallout from the “Summer of Love” led to the passing of the first sit/lie law in San Francisco in 1968. It was overturned in the ’70s after police had used it to harass gay men in the Castro district.
Today, the Haight looks a lot different — with chain stores like Ben & Jerry’s and American Apparel, it’s now a major tourist destination. But the neighborhood still has some of the same problems it did in the ’60s, with a large homeless population that collects at street corners, often kids with dogs asking for change or just hanging out. So Haight Street finds itself again in the center of a campaign to create a new sit/lie law, Proposition L. This proposition was born out of a clash that’s been brewing on Haight Street between business owners, residents and homeless people. It’s now one of the most polarizing propositions on the ballot.
Our colleague at KALW News, Max Jacobs examined all sides of the issue in the above report. Transcript after the jump.
MAX JACOBS: In the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, Haight Street is a quieter version of what it is on say, a sunny Saturday when tourists flood the sidewalks.
Right now there’s a middle-aged guy on one corner playing his guitar. It doesn’t look like he’s playing for money – he’s just playing.
Across the street, there’s a group of loud teenagers and twenty-somethings taking up nearly the whole corner smoking and hanging out. Some of them have dogs. One even has a cat.
These aren’t your typical young people: many are wearing dirty clothes and look worn out. Some are probably homeless.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You know, sometimes after walking like 10 miles, me and my dog need to be able to sit down and just relax.
The group on Schrader and Haight don’t want to give their names, but they do say they’re gathering money for their next meal.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We’re trying to make up a dollar so we can go to our squat and be warm tonight.
These kids weren’t alive in the ’60s, but it’s not hard to imagine people their age playing guitar and sitting at these same corners over 50 years ago.
But today, many people don’t think they should be allowed to sit here, at least not during the day.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We’re in this situation for a reason, we need to make money too and as long as we’re not making fools of ourselves, it shouldn’t be an issue, it really shouldn’t.
But it is an issue, for many people who live or work here.
Richard Magary is with the Buena Vista Neighborhood Association, which represents many Haight residents.
RICHARD MAGARY: They don’t feel safe or welcome to walk down a public sidewalk because of people who think that the sidewalk belongs to them.
Magary and the association are pushing for Proposition L, the controversial Sit/Lie law, or as proponents call it, the Civil Sidewalks. Prop L would make it illegal for someone to sit or lie on the sidewalk between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m.
MAGARY: This is aimed at people who are disrespectful, aggressive and go way beyond the general norms of civility by blocking the public spaces that belong to everyone and should be able to be used by everyone.
Under Prop L, police would first issue a warning, and then a fine from $50 to $100 to anyone who refuses to move. Repeat offenses could lead to fines of up to $500, community service and jail time.
PRAVEEN MADAN: Myth number one is “it’s not about the homeless.”
That’s Praveen Madan, owner of Booksmith on Haight street. Business owners in the Haight are torn on this issue, but Madan opposes Prop L because he thinks it targets one group of people.
MADAN: If you look at the language of the initiative it says people who sit or lie down on public sidewalks during business hours, well who are these people? We’re definitely not talking about tourists, we’re not talking children, we’re not talking about the elderly or the disabled. So if you’re not talking about all these people, the process of elimination, the only people left who can be targeted by this law are the homeless people.
Madan and his partner have owned their business since 2007. Even though people are often loitering near his storefront, he doesn’t think it’s worth passing a law like Prop L.
MADAN: The fact that it’s made to be this public safety crisis … elected officials, the mayor, the chief of police – they’ve come out and they’ve use words like the “street thug” and “gutter punk” and people taking over the streets. And they’re portraying this image of a crisis, where I don’t see the crisis.
Down the street at a boutique toy store called Kid Robot, Manager Korena Rogers does see the crisis.
KORENA ROGERS: A few months ago my assistant manager got bit by a dog from a homeless guy and they can’t find the dog, so that’s pretty serious. I mean, biting an adult is pretty serious, but what if a child?
For Rogers, the issue comes down to personal responsibility. She’s tired of cleaning up urine and feces she routinely finds outside her store.
ROGERS: If people are more respectful, yeah sure, I was a teenager once, I liked to hang out on the street, but we don’t do that.
DENIS O’LEARY: I think what we’re looking at here is trying to balance people’s rights.
Denis O’Leary is Captain of the Park Police District located a block off Haight Street.
O’LEARY: People’s rights to not be bothered by the police and other people’s rights to not be bothered by those who are obstructing the sidewalks.
There are a few laws on the books in San Francisco targeting this problem already, such as the law against aggressive panhandling. But police officers like O’Leary say these laws are outdated.
O’LEARY: For instance there is one particular law that does not allow a person to block the sidewalk, and opponents of Proposition L have pointed to these laws and said if they were enforced, they could be used instead of creating a new law that Prop L would bring. However, these laws themselves have been used in the past and they’ve been refined with case laws and it has become difficult for police officers to use those particular laws, the existing laws for a new way of using the sidewalk
Well this new way of using the sidewalk could take many forms. And that concerns Bob Offer-Westort.
BOB OFFER-WESTORT: We’ll see the Sit/Lie law, if it passes, being used differently in different neighborhoods.
Offer-Westort is the Civil Rights Organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness.
OFFER-WESTORT: Most certainly in the Upper Haight it’s gonna be used against homeless youth. In the Tenderloin we’re gonna see it used against homeless people. There’s a very good chance in the Western Addition we’re gonna see it used against African American youth. We’ll see it used against day laborers in the Mission. It depends on what more well-to-do neighbors are complaining about in terms of people they don’t like seeing around.
The city estimates the homeless population in San Francisco is roughly 6,500 people, but homeless advocates think the number could be over twice that. There are less than 1,300 shelter beds in the city. So Offer-Westort says that means thousands of homeless people are resting outside everyday.
OFFER-WESTORT: The idea that people can spend the entirety of the day from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. without resting anywhere is simply absurd. And there are large portions of the city where there aren’t parks easily available. For example, in the Tenderloin, if you’re a single adult, there’s not a park that you can go to. In much of South of Market, there are not parks that you can access.
Haight Street might not be the isolated urban area that South of Market is with the Panhandle and Golden Gate Park so close. But it is where many of the city’s homeless can access social services, ask for loose change or just hang out.
Most of the homeless people interviewed for this story are and frustrated by having to consider this additional challenge in their daily life. One man says he’s not sure what he’ll do if Prop L passes: he said he’ll figure it out when the time comes.
For San Francisco voters, that’s next Tuesday. If voters pass Proposition L, the next time you want to sit down outside, you might want to find a bench.
In the Upper Haight, I’m Max Jacobs for Crosscurrents.
It’s a complicated decision facing voters on November 2, but unfortunately we’re not quite through. There is one last final important piece of the puzzle: Proposition M. While advocates on both sides of the issue were ramping up their campaigns early last summer, the Board of Supervisors submitted Prop M to the ballot. On the surface, it sounds simple enough: if passed, the police chief would be required to create a beat patrol program in every station in San Francisco. Well, that, and if Prop M receives more votes than Prop L, it would nullify Prop L, even if that it passed too. So a voter who already cast their support for Prop L, but didn’t carefully read Prop M, could negate their vote by voting for both.