Sitting boundaries

Pub date February 3, 2010
WriterRebecca Bowe

Aggressive lobbying efforts by the San Francisco Police Department and some of its allies who are pushing a proposed sit/lie ordinance have irked some current and former members of the Board of Supervisors.

The legislation was privately created by new Police Chief George Gascón and then played up in the mainstream media. It would make it illegal to sit or lie down on public sidewalks. Supporters say it would make it easier for cops to target people who harass neighborhood residents.

But in other cities where similar laws have been passed, protests have erupted from homeless-advocacy organizations and civil liberties groups, which say criminalizing this behavior unfairly (and unconstitutionally) targets homeless people who have nowhere else to go.

In Portland, Ore., a similar law was enacted then overturned by the courts. In Los Angeles, an ordinance against sleeping on the sidewalk was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union, resulting in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2006 that unless adequate shelter is available for homeless people in L.A., arresting them for sleeping on the sidewalk amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

But an e-mail action alert included in SFPD Central Station Capt. Anna Brown’s monthly community newsletter encouraged people to contact the mayor and the Board of Supervisors to support the creation of a sit/lie ordinance. “Naturally, there is resistance from the left-leaning Board of Supervisors who feel this is an attack on the homeless population,” it noted.

That unusually overt political plea caught the eye of Aaron Peskin, former president of the Board of Supervisors and current chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party, who called it “funky.” Peskin told us he’d never seen an advocacy pitch like this go out in a captain’s newsletter before, and he questioned whether this was an appropriate use of city resources.

But the City Attorney’s Office says this doesn’t fall under city laws banning electioneering by city employees, who are barred from using government resources to endorse a candidate or ballot initiative, or from doing any campaign-related work on city property.

Yet this kind of pitch “is not considered political activity,” Jack Song, a spokesperson for City Attorney Dennis Herrera, told the Guardian.

But Sup. David Campos, a former police commissioner, frowned upon it nonetheless. “Something like this is not really helpful to the Board of Supervisors and the Police Department working together,” Campos said.

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi took a similar view. At a recent Board of Supervisors meeting, he requested a hearing about the ordinance because he said the media-driven public debate had occurred without formal discussion. Anti-loitering and public nuisance laws are already on the books, Mirkarimi pointed out.

“What makes those laws inadequate?” he asked. “How would the proposed law augment what is already in effect?”

The alert wasn’t actually written by Capt. Brown, who included it in her newsletter. It was drafted by the Community Leadership Alliance, an organization headed by David Villa-Lobos, a longtime resident of the Tenderloin and a candidate for the District 6 Supervisor seat.

Since Gascón floated the idea of creating a sit/lie ordinance, CLA has kicked into high gear to mobilize support, most recently issuing its action alert e-mail to 8,000 recipients. Police captains were included in the e-mail blast, Villa-Lobos told us, but each captain decides independently what to include in his or her newsletter.

People sitting and lying on sidewalks is “a really, really big problem, especially in the crime-ridden areas,” Villa-Lobos said. “God bless the homeless, but it’s a big problem there too.” Several years ago, his organization tried to mount a campaign for a sit/lie ordinance, but it didn’t go anywhere. “People came out and said we were trying to violate civil rights,” he said.

The Community Leadership Alliance is active in the Tenderloin, SoMa, and the mid-Market Street area, and the group occasionally holds monthly meetings at the Infusion Lounge, an upscale nightclub owned by Scott Caroen, the chair of the organization.

Gascón worked with deputy city attorneys to draft the ordinance and all district police stations have submitted to their commanders a list of areas that they feel could benefit from the law, according to a Tenderloin district newsletter. Mirkarimi told the Guardian that some supervisors were kept in the dark for weeks about the fact that an ordinance had been drafted. “This wasn’t collaborative at all,” Mirkarimi told us. “We never received it until we demanded to see it.”

The Haight-Ashbury, where residents and visitors have been complaining about harassment from wayward traveling youth, has been ground zero for discussion about a sit/lie ordinance. A small group of irate residents there and the Park Station Capt. Teresa Barrett have rallied in support of the law, saying it would give police a new tool to target these disruptive street kids.

But it’s clear that the ordinance’s supporters want to see it applied broadly and to be used to roust the homeless in neighborhoods throughout the city.

“CLA feels that our sidewalks should be enjoyable and a place of social gathering, and that the ordinance could go a long way in helping our neighborhoods feel safer,” reads the Community Leadership Alliance alert that was included in the police captain’s newsletter. “It may also reduce the overall homeless population in San Francisco by discouraging people from coming to the city to beg for money.”