"Sit/Lie" Laws Don't Rest Well with Planning Philosophy

November 6, 2012 It is a brisk morning as I walk hurriedly in my New Yorkers fast pace shuffle up the slight hill on Bancroft Street towards Wurster Hall, the building of the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley. I pass a man who looks to be in his mid to late 40s sleeping on a heating grate. Generally if I get to school before nine I see this same gentlemen sleeping there most cool mornings. Other students join the daily walking ritual passing this homeless man without so much as a glance. As it turns out if Measure S passes this November 8th, this man along with other homeless folks will no longer have the right to sit, lie down or sleep on the sidewalk from 7:00am to 10:00pm. Violation of this law can result in criminal prosecution although proponents for the measure insist that the homeless will be given the opportunity to seek the services they need but for some reason have resisted thus far.

The sidewalk holds a symbolic weight most people do not consciously acknowledge but undoubtedly respond to in their daily grind. The difference between suburban neighborhoods with sidewalks to those without makes a bold statement of who is welcomed. It was not uncommon in my old neighborhood on Long Island to get strange looks on the few occasions I opted to walk to a friend’s house. On one occasion I remember walking back from a fast food joint late one evening with a group of friends. A group of 16 year olds walking down a sidewalk (one of the few that existed, probably because of its proximity to commercial and retail businesses) warranted enough suspicion for a police officer to slow down in his vehicle, roll down his window and inform us that loitering was not allowed. What this officer was implying as he equated walking on a sidewalk with loitering was that we were not using the sidewalk as the neighborhood’s perceived acceptability, namely this was a space designed for patrons to go to and from their vehicle. We were perceived to be in violation of this norm.

Photo by Sydney Cespedes

The city space is not likely to run into quite this same dilemma. City sidewalks are actually for walking after all. But laws and regulations such as Measure S do present this same exclusive “normalization” of spatial use and they are a blunt reminder of the social stratification implicitly (and often explicitly) ingrained in our legal institutions. Criminalization of the homeless and the poor has its roots in our history, particularly with vagrancy laws that became racialized after the Civil War. It wasn’t till just a few decades ago that the US Supreme Court ruled against vagrancy laws but the response hasn’t necessarily to rethink government’s responsibility of the homeless population. Instead, local laws have evolved to target specific, unwanted populations. If Berkeley passes Measure S they will be just like the dozens of other cities to pass similar laws in the last decade. Among the proponents of the measure are small business owners who claim that homeless people in front of their storefronts scare away customers but the city of Berkeley has never actually implemented a study evaluating if any causal relationship exists between the presence of homeless people to the decline in business profit. In today’s economy it is easy to sympathize with the struggling business owner but without actual data to suggest the homeless may be contributing negatively to their profits, it is no wonder Measure S raises a few eyebrows. Opponents against the measure also argue that the initiative does not obligate the city to create any new programmatic services or shelter to accommodate the wave of homeless people who will theoretically be ushered into these resources and thus stretch their capacity to properly serve all new clientele.

I for one can’t get over the psychological and symbolic meaning of the “no sitting” laws. For me, it brings up feelings of living in an Orwellian society where children are not allowed to play in the street and elderly men are forbidden to play board games on cardboard boxes on the sidewalks. These laws imply a private societal life and a transient public existence. The reality is, this isn’t the population that is meant to target and the fact of the matter is, laws like these gets enforced with a purpose. Essentially, if you are not homeless or don’t look homeless you probably won’t be affected by Measure S even if you and your friend decide to have a chat while sitting on the sidewalk. But the existence of these laws provide the precise foundation and normalization of a police state where we ask law enforcement officials to police inconsequential actions instead of real criminal dangers.

Sydney Céspedes is a student at UC Berkeley in the Master of City Planning Program. Previously she attended Hunter College of the City University of New York for her bachelor’s degree in Political Science. Sydney has also been published in the Hunts Point Express, a local newspaper serving the Bronx community of Hunts Point and Longwood. She can be reached at syd2987@berkeley.edu.