Thursday, October 14, 2010

Hardy perennial blooms again:
San Francisco voters to vote against homeless people

The opportunity comes around over and over. Some politician is running for higher office or just seeks to give unhappy voters someone to beat up on. Easy answer: put another measure on the ballot to criminalize the lives of homeless people. Most of us will vote for it. It may or may not pass constitutional muster -- after all, it is not yet illegal to be poor and smelly. The police will or won't enforce it, depending on the political and media winds; since these measures have no impact on real crime, they are seldom high priorities. Homeless people will be more miserable, but that is the intent, so all to the good ...

This one is Prop. L -- called "Civil Sidewalks" by its supporters. It makes it illegal to sit or lie on a city sidewalk, unless you fall in one of a long list of exceptions that creates a situation that will allow police pretty much complete discretion about whether or not to enforce the prohibition. If police tell you to stand up, you have to -- and then they can't arrest you, so the law is just a harassment tool anyway. Mostly police aren't going to enforce this -- unless a more affluent citizen decides some the offender is an annoying homeless person and complains.

We vote on variations of this "outlaw the homeless" theme over and over.
  • In November 1992, we passed a law aiming to outlaw "aggressive panhandling" -- though courts said people retained a free speech right to beg.
  • In November 1994, we passed something that aimed to prohibit people from sitting or lying on sidewalks in commercial districts. The ballot title called it "Sidewalk Prohibitions." See correction here.
  • In 2003, a rare outbreak of realism, as then-State Senator and now-Democratic State Chairman John Burton called out the home truth:
    "What bothers me is that politicians and political consultants are going after the poor for political gain," Burton said. "I just find it offensive. Last I checked, it's not a crime to be poor."
  • On April Fools day in 2005, Mayor Newsom was saying
    "Homeless woes can be solved."
That last became Prop. L -- and we get to vote on it this year.

Hey, didn't we pass this one in 1994? Yes. (Not exactly. See correction.) And that tells you most of what you need to know about San Francisco's panoply of anti-homeless legislation. Homeless people need housing and usually a lot of physical and mental health care. If they weren't nuts before they landed on the streets, they almost certainly are after a few seasons of dealing with the weather, each other -- and us! We can't legislate this population out of existence.

A very thoughtful Haight-Ashbury neighborhood businessman, Praveen Madan, decided that he had to investigate the idea of Prop. L for himself, looking at what he really sees everyday and whether the proposed law will do anyone any good. He didn't end up a fan of Prop. L. Read the whole thing at the Bay Citizen. And ponder this, his conclusion:

... I can’t help but wonder about the real reasons many of my friends and neighbors are pushing for it. I know many of these people and they are normal and reasonable folks, they have good educations and careers, and they can critically think through issues.

I don’t have to look far for the answer since I nearly went along with this law myself. I had to force myself to sit back and analyze my thoughts. I had to admit to myself that the way certain people look can make us afraid. We don’t like to be confronted by a human condition that appears so alien and dirty. Such confrontations bring out strong negative feelings in us – feelings of fear, disgust, and disbelief. Overcome by fear, our minds blow any real problems out of proportion and we end up championing disproportional solutions like the proposed sit/ lie law. We want these people gone, these uncomfortable appearances to disappear so we can surround ourselves with a world of our choice.

We want these people gone -- but we don't get a world of our choice and neither do the homeless people. No on Prop. L -- for the umpteenth time.


modelenoir said...

Another thoughtful article about Sit/Lie (Prop L). It's great to see so many people putting such effort into analyzing the current issue with a historical perspective.

If anyone skipped Praveen Madan's article, it's really worth a read as well.

Darlene said...

I always remember what Jesus said about what you have done to the least of these you have done unto me. (It's been too many years since I heard the exact quotation so I am paraphrasing.) The message is there.

The Rev. John Kirkley said...

WWJFTSU? Who would Jesus force to stand up? Best as I can recall, only people who were lame - and then only to demonstrate their healing!

"Sit down, sit down for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross."

Civic Center said...

Thanks for the historical anthology. I tried to explain this to a neighbor who somehow thought Proposition L was going to be some kind of solution. No. The police don't even enforce the existing laws on the books, let alone new ones, UNLESS THEY WANT OR ARE TOLD TO DO SO.