No block party in San Francisco
Tourists flock to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood for people like the poem guy, who sets up a folding chair and typewriter and composes on demand in exchange for a little cash. Then there’s the edgy puppet guy and the countless street musicians who lounge on the sidewalk with a change cup nearby.
But the birthplace of the “Summer of Love” has also become a magnet for homeless youths who have blocked merchants’ doorways and intimidated passersby with aggressive taunts, unpredictable dogs and even a few assaults.
The behavior, decried as thuggish by Mayor Gavin Newsom, is the catalyst for a proposed ordinance that would ban sitting or lying on sidewalks citywide from 7 a.m. to 11 pm.
“We’re dealing with behavior creating real and chronic conditions where progressive liberals have had enough,” said Newsom, who recently moved to Ashbury Heights, a warren of handsome Victorians above Haight Street. “People with earrings in their nose and tattoos on their neck are saying, ‘We’ve got to do something.’ ”
A host of cities nationwide — including Los Angeles — have similar laws, many less sweeping. Seattle’s ordinance withstood a 1st Amendment challenge in federal court. Portland’s was struck down under Oregon law. But in this dense and politically liberal city, the proposal has sparked a debate on civil rights, civil behavior and the Haight’s changing character.
A Board of Supervisors committee is scheduled to take up the ban Monday. The panel could reduce its scope, but Newsom has vowed to take it to the ballot if lawmakers water it down or reject it.
At a recent hearing, Public Defender Jeff Adachi showed photos of tourists sitting on suitcases and kids resting. If the law were equally applied as the Constitution requires, he contends, they and countless others — the poem guy and the puppet guy included — would risk violation daily.
Adachi and others contend that the discretion police say they intend to use leaves too much leeway for profiling of the down-and-out.
Opponents cite existing laws that police could use to crack down on blocked sidewalks, aggressive panhandling or assaultive behavior.
“If there are a few bad apples behaving inappropriately, they should deal with that,” said Tommi Avicolli Mecca, who played his guitar on Castro Street in a citywide protest last month to oppose the ordinance. “But to take away the civil rights of everyone in the city is not the way to go.”
The Democratic Party Central Committee recently voted to oppose the ban, and the Planning Commission noted that it is at odds with the city’s stated commitment to encourage the use of sidewalks and converted parking spaces as gathering zones.
Proponents counter that police use discretion daily with infractions like jaywalking and can be trusted to enforce this ordinance selectively.
The ordinance calls for an initial warning. A first offense is an infraction, and repeat violations are misdemeanors that can earn offenders up to $500 in fines and 30 days in jail. Parks, plazas and public benches remain legal resting places.
Assistant Police Chief Kevin Cashman said warnings have largely reduced problems in other cities with comparable laws, and he expects to cite people “very, very rarely.”
He said existing laws have “shortcomings,” with some requiring the aggrieved party to step forward — problematic because of fears of retaliation — and others demanding too much police time in an era of tight budgets.
History has shadowed the debate. A similar law was used in the 1970s to target gay men. And law-and-order Mayor Frank Jordan tried to pass a virtually identical one in 1994. The late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, noting that it aimed to keep “the street people on their feet and moving briskly in all directions,” called it “a bummer.” Voters rejected it.
But in a citywide poll conducted in February for the Chamber of Commerce, 71% of respondents said they would support an ordinance that “would prohibit individuals from sitting or lying on the sidewalk, blocking or harassing pedestrians during specific hours.” The ordinance under debate deals only with sitting and lying.
On a recent day, a homeless man named Randall gathered with friends on Masonic Street in the historic neighborhood.
“We’re all from broken homes, there’s reasons why we’re here,” he said, adding that most of them cause no trouble. “All these rich people in these houses live in the Haight-Ashbury because it used to be cool. But now they don’t want us here anymore.”
To Ted Loewenberg, president of the Haight-Ashbury Improvement Assn., that about sums it up. The Haight is now one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods, he said, with a growing number of homeowners and families — “real people living real lives.”
The passive panhandlers of yesterday were well-tolerated, but recent arrivals have gathered in groups, demanding money and berating those who refuse or give too little, he said.
On a blue-sky Saturday, Loewenberg strolled past one young man in a group, holding a sign asking for “cash, grass and hash.” Loewenberg stepped around them without incident.
The ordinance, he said, would allow officers to “on the spot look at people who are more problematic than others and disperse a situation that could be problematic.”
Therein lies the concern.
“What bothers me is because people feel intimidated by certain people in the street — based on appearance — that we have to make sitting illegal,” said Colleen Rivecca of the Homeless Youth Alliance, which serves many of the Haight Street kids.
In Los Angeles, a citywide ordinance applies from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Police warn the downtown homeless at 6:01 a.m. and cite or arrest those who refuse to move, said Deputy City Atty. Songhai Miguda-Armstead. Her office said 193 misdemeanor cases were filed last year, and 29 so far this year. Police have also issued numerous citations handled directly by the courts.
Miguda-Armstead says social workers sometimes enter the booking room after arrests and offer youths a chance to accept services instead, such as shelter or addiction counseling. Newsom said he believes San Francisco’s ordinance would be a similar stick to prod resistant youths into meaningful programs.
Some merchants feel they have no other option.
Kent Uyehara, a fourth-generation San Franciscan, has run his FTC skateboard shop here for 15 years. Lately he has dealt with youths blocking his doorway, swearing at him and failing to clean up after their dogs.
“This is a tolerant neighborhood, but why should we be tolerant of people who don’t want to respect anyone else?” Uyehara asked. “We’re not extreme ideologues. We’re just San Franciscans who love this city.”