LOCAL SPIN: Not Lying Still on Sit-Lie
Monterey examines the serious issue of homelessness.
Because the issue of homelessness is one of extremes.
On one side there’s AB 5, the bill proposed by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco. The statewide homeless bill of rights would allow car camping on streets without restriction; round-the-clock access to bathrooms, showers and hygiene supplies; and activities like panhandling and picking through trash for recyclables. (The highly controversial “pee anywhere, even in public” clause has already been kicked.) On the other side, there’s the possibility Monterey might enact a sit-lie ordinance, which would restrict people from sitting or lying on public sidewalks during certain hours, likely the daylight ones.
AB 5 passed its first hurdle, a legislative committee vote, on April 23. It seeks to legalize some behaviors of the poorest of the poor, but offers no remedy for homelessness. It makes no mention of specific funding or social services to attack the problem head on.
Sit-lie ordinances, by contrast, seek to criminalize the very existence of the homeless. The idea is in such a nascent stage that the city of Monterey doesn’t know what it wants to do, only that it probably wants to do something.
“IF YOU ENFORCE YOUR LAWS EVENLY, YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE TO ARREST ME.”
But a sit-lie ordinance can’t exist in a vacuum. It has to come with options, like day-rooms for the homeless, expanded social services and public hygiene facilities. If it passes, a sit-lie ordinance will have police citing people who can’t afford to pay for those loitering citations. Those citations then will end up in court to be adjudicated in an already jam-packed system.
Who will pay for all of it?
The idea was bandied about, along with many others, on April 24 at a Monterey City Council study session.
The next step has City Manager Fred Meurer at the council’s May 21 meeting presenting the council a variety of what he calls “philosophical questions.” Each question – like a proposal to allow overnight car camping – will lead to another question: Where does the council think car camping should be allowed? Down by the wharf? Veterans Park? How about a city-owned garage? And that will lead to the question of who gets to car camp: disabled vets? So-called travelers? The mentally ill? Everyone?
It will also include the philosophical question of whether the council wants to examine a sit-lie ordinance. So far, there’s been a lack of publicly articulated and debated direction from the council on any of these matters.
“I will be coming back to council and saying, ‘Here are a number of potential ordinances that various members of the public have expressed interest in our pursuing,’” Meurer says. “‘Do you have the interest-slash-willingness in pursuing them?’ And then I will go from there.”
Other cities have enacted sit-lie ordinances with decidedly mediocre results. A state judge ruled in 2009 that Portland’s sit-lie ordinance, enacted a decade ago, was unconstitutional. The Oregonian’s Sara Hottman reports the Oregon Legislature is considering a bill to allow cities to enact their own laws about sidewalk use that couldn’t be preempted by the state constitution. Palo Alto enacted a sit-lie ordinance in 1997 for its tony University Avenue shopping district, then expanded it to the whole of downtown in 2007, to allegations of uneven enforcement. Voters in Berkeley last November narrowly defeated a sitting ban that was supported by a majority of the City Council.
There’s an interesting moment on the video of the Monterey City Council study session, at the middle of the public comment period. It’s when Joyce Vandevere, local activist and president of the Monterey Peace & Justice Center, walked up to the podium in all of her 86-year-old glory and read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And then she said, in short, that she’s old and sometimes she has to rest on the sidewalk when she’s taking the one-mile walk from her home to downtown.
If a cop saw her, she said, he’d probably give her a ride home.
“If you enforce your rules equally, you’re going to have to arrest me,” she said. “Any way you put down those lying and sitting rules, they’re going to catch up the wrong people, if they’re enforced properly. That’s punitive. We want to find ways to help people to be in a better place.”