BERKELEY, Calif. --With the November election around the corner, Berkeley remains divided about controversial Measure S, which would ban sitting on sidewalks in commercial areas from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m.
Supporters say the measure is needed to reduce the number of street people who loiter in front of businesses.James Young, a partner at Paul's Shoe Repair at 2281 Shattuck Ave. in the heart of downtown Berkeley, said he thinks the people who congregate in front of his shop and the nearby Berkeley Public Library scare customers away and hurt business. "It doesn't look good and people think twice about coming downtown to shop because they don't want to be bothered," Young said. He said, "If panhandlers who hang out downtown keep moving along it's not bad, but if they stay in front of our store all day it's no good." Osha Neumann, an attorney with the East Bay Community Law Center who has long been active in Berkeley civic affairs, concedes that people who congregate in front of stores can be an annoyance, saying, "I don't deny the problem." But Neumann said he thinks the evidence that panhandlers and street people are hurting downtown businesses "is entirely anecdotal" and isn't convincing. He said the areas where business has decreased the most are commercial districts away from downtown where there are few panhandlers, such as Fourth Street. He said there are many reasons other than panhandlers why the downtown businesses are hurting. "Berkeley is being pinched by big-box stores in Emeryville and sales on the Internet," he said. Neumann alleges that proponents of Measure S "are looking to blame those who are hurt the most economically" and "promise a lot and play on prejudices and moral panic." He also said criminalizing sitting on the street hasn't worked in San Francisco and other cities. The Berkeley community "should come together" to help the homeless and street people instead of arresting them, Neumann said. He said he thinks Measure S isn't needed because the city already has laws in place to deal with street people who act up and cause problems. In their ballot argument, proponents of the measure -- who include Mayor Tom Bates, Councilwoman Susan Wengraf and some business owners -- say street people "block sidewalks for hours at a time" and "create an unacceptable environment for the 'mom and pop' merchants who pay the taxes that fund the services, grow local jobs and make Berkeley a special place to live." Supporters say the measure is mainly targeted at problems they say occur on busy stretches of Shattuck and Telegraph avenues. But opponents, including housing activists and City Council members Kriss Worthington, Jesse Arreguin and Max Anderson, say Measure S "sets a dangerous precedent, discriminating against an entire class of people who happen to be poor." Berkeley already has an ordinance in place that prohibits people from lying on the sidewalk during daytime hours. The proposed measure would amend the city code to extend the ban to sitting. There would be exceptions for medical emergencies, wheelchairs and other mobility devices, as well as other exclusions. Violators would first be warned first, and if they do not stand up or move away, the police could cite them for an infraction and they would have to pay a $75 fine or do community service. Those who repeat the violation within 30 days of the first citation could be charged with an infraction or a misdemeanor and could be jailed. If it passes, the measure would take effect on July 1, 2013. Before then, the city would do outreach and education with homeless and youth service providers, merchants, community agencies, and city staff, including police.