Once known for tolerance toward the downtrodden, Berkeley turned a corner Tuesday night, advocates for the homeless and mentally ill say, when the City Council voted to give police greater power to give citations to people lying on city sidewalks.
The business community, on the other hand, claimed victory in the eight-month fight to pass Mayor Tom Bates’ Public Commons for Everyone Initiative, saying the measure begins to address the inappropriate street behavior of those who trample on the right of shoppers to enjoy the public commons and for merchants to earn their living.
While the public filled the Council Chambers-with most expressing opposition to the proposed laws making it easier for police to cite people lying on the sidewalk-little resistance to the initiative’s increased restrictions on smoking was expressed.
And most who spoke publicly also favored provisions for enhanced services to chronically homeless people, to be paid for by raising parking meter fees to collect an estimated $1 million in revenue. (Specifics on how the city manager’s office arrived at the $1 million figure will not be available until next week.)
However, several speakers pointed out that services promised in the initiative, particularly increasing the availability of public toilets and funding supportive housing, could have been delivered without the tie to punitive measures.
For attorney Osha Neumann, linking services with restrictions was like an abusive husband saying to his wife: “I’ll support you, but you have to accept this abuse,” he told the council.
Councilmember Max Anderson said no new laws are needed. “Some of these [services] could have been accomplished a long time ago … We have to balance this some way so we don’t have to criminalize people to get them into these programs,” he said.
The council vote on the initiative was divided into three parts:
o A resolution that requires one warning (down from two) and no complaint to enforce a ban on lodging in public places-Berkeley police interpret “lodging” as lying down in a sleeping bag, sleeping, or having goods clustered around oneself-with enforcement a low priority between 10 p.m. and 6 p.m.” passed 5-3-1, with Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmembers Laurie Capitelli, Betty Olds, Gordon Wozniak and Darryl Moore voting in favor, Councilmembers Dona Spring, Kriss Worthington and Max Anderson voting to oppose and Councilmember Linda Maio abstaining.
o An ordinance that expands the number of commercial districts in which lying on the sidewalk is prohibited was approved 6-2-1, with Bates, Moore, Maio, Capitelli, Olds and Wozniak voting in favor, Worthington and Spring opposed and Anderson abstaining.
o A third vote approved greater restrictions on where people can smoke also passed and, in concept, a 25 cent per hour meter fee hike to pay for various services for homeless persons. This vote was 8-0 with Anderson abstaining.
The business community was represented at the meeting by the Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Berkeley Association, the Telegraph Avenue Business Improvement District and the North Shattuck Association.
“Berkeley for a long time has tried to build a very big tent. We’re now in a situation where we’re having difficulty with parts of that tent,” Chamber CEO Ted Garrett told the council. “This [initiative] isn’t a panacea, but it’s the beginning of a win-win situation for everyone concerned.”
Chamber President Roland Peterson, also executive director of the Telegraph Avenue BID, had lobbied for harsher laws, including one that would have punished people for prolonged sitting on the sidewalk.
“There really are no new laws in this,” he told the council. “There are fine tunings on how it’s going to be enforced This is one step in a much larger process. We’re going to be coming back to see how this has worked.”
Wozniak blamed the stagnating business climate on Telegraph and downtown on the inappropriate behavior of people on the street. “On Telegraph and Shattuck, we have a very high commercial vacancy rate. We’re losing revenue. It’s very important that we do something about the problematic street behavior,” he said.
Several Telegraph Avenue merchants, however, told the Planet in earlier interviews that they believed the numerous vacancies were caused by high rents, difficulties in getting city permits and the economy, including the bankruptcy of Tower Records and the nationwide scaling-back of the Gap stores, rather than the behavior of street people.
Worthington told council colleagues that linking people lying on the sidewalk to under-performing business did not make sense.
“When I hear business owners talking about problematic street behavior, they’re usually talking about someone standing and cursing or gesticulating wildly,” Worthington said. “Ironically, none of the measures here address that.”
People aren’t afraid that someone lying down is going to hit them “and they don’t feel scared when they see somebody at nighttime sleeping,” Worthington added. “So these solutions to problematic street behavior-it’s inconceivable that they could work. None of those things address problematic street behavior.”
Calling the initiative “disingenuous,” Kokavulu Lumukanda, a formerly homeless member of the Homeless Commission, called on the council not to support the initiative.
“The homeless need more services and permanent housing and not coercion or punitive measures,” he said.
This article originally appeared in the Berkeley Daily Planet
JUDITH SCHERR can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org