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by Lydia Gans and Terry Messman
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he mainstream media may be ignoring them, but homeless activists and providers of services for homeless youth and adults are making sure that Mayor Tom Bates and the Berkeley City Council are paying attention. The threat that Berkeley officials might pass a law prohibiting sitting on the city streets has mobilized a broad coalition of organizations to express opposition to it.
On Tuesday, June 7, another spirited demonstration was held at the Berkeley City Hall, organized by the Stand Up For The Right To Sit Down coalition. A number of young people who have experienced homelessness joined with organizers in explaining the inhumanity of the idea and pointing out the paucity of services for homeless youth in the city.
The Power of Political Protest
The publicity and highly visible protests organized by the coalition have already had a major impact. By mid-June, it became evident that the mayor and City Council were beginning to back off from their previous plans for the council to enact a sitting ban ordinance.
It now appears that the coalition has made it too politically costly for the City Council to pass such an ordinance. The council has evidently felt compelled to drop their plans to push through an anti-sitting ordinance in the summer months.
They may drop it entirely now, or they may try to place it as a future ballot measure. That way, individual council members can avoid the political costs of supporting such a controversial measure, and leave it up to the voting public to bear responsibility.
On June 15, the Berkeley Daily Planet reported that one of the sitting ban’s chief proponents, Craig Becker, owner of the Caffe Mediterraneum and an influential member of the Telegraph Business Improvement District, has conceded that “the proposal is in limbo for now.”
The coalition’s protests and publicity are undoubtedly the reason that the sitting ban proposal has been pushed down into limbo. Homeless activists have scored at least a temporary triumph over a seemingly unstoppable proposal backed by mayor Tom Bates, several members of the City Council and some of the most powerful business organizations in Berkeley
Young People Fight City Hall
At the June 7 protest, scores of people gathered at Berkeley City Hall. They held up signs bearing the message of the organizing coalition, Stand Up For The Right To Sit Down. One man held a sign stating satirically, “9 out of 10 violent crimes are committed by someone standing.”
Dozens of hand-painted prayer flags were on display. Young people from Youth Spirit Artworks were serving food and stringing together prayer flags that were later held by the people who gathered to speak to the issues.
The prayer flags are a project of Youth Spirit Artworks. Director Sally Hindman explained, “Those prayer flags are a prayer for compassion and justice for youth and all the people that are on the streets right now. (A prayer) that our community will continue to bear in mind the difficulty that they face on the street and not penalize them for being homeless.”
People formed a large circle in front of City Hall to speak out against the sitting ban, with Venus Morris of Youth Spirit Artworks leading the discussion. She spoke from her own experience of young people living on the streets, alone and destitute. “So they’re on the street and they’re panhandling,” she said. “They have nowhere to go.” If they get a ticket, she added, any money they get from panhandling must go to pay the ticket – or they are sent to jail and get a criminal record.
Another speaker pointed out that Berkeley has only eight shelter beds available year-round for homeless adolescents and just 25 shelter beds open six months of the year for youth living on the streets.
Hali Hammer and Patrick Fahey played a poignant song about being homeless, “Living in a P.O. Box.”
Attorney Osha Neumann read from a Daily Cal article quoting Roland Peterson, director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District, saying, “In my view, a sit-lie (law) is not really a threat to anyone. It’s really a statement saying this is not OK, you ought to be doing something better with your life.” This was met with much derision from the crowd.
Hate Crime Legislation
Carol Denney reported on important legislation pending in Sacramento which adds homelessness to the list of groups protected under California hate crimes legislation. Assemblymember Bonnie Lowenthal from Long Beach is the sponsor of AB 312 which appears to have a good chance of passing. She sponsored an identical bill last year which passed the legislature but was vetoed by then-Gov. Schwarzenegger. The bill can bring about what Denney described as a “shift in the cultural perspective on homelessness.”
As 7 p.m. approached, BOSS community organizer Michael Diehl led several people into the City Hall. Diehl was able to address the City Council, telling them how harmful this proposal would be.
But it was out on the lawn prior to the council meeting that the young people from Youth Spirit Artworks made the strongest impression. This was their event. It was their appeal for compassion, their plea for justice, expressed so beautifully with their colorful prayer flags, that carried the message.
There is more to the message. As long as Mayor Bates and the City Council consider passing an anti-sitting ordinance, the Stand Up For the Right To Sit Down coalition will continue to point out that this is not only a cruel law, but also stupid, expensive and unenforceable.
They are asking the further question: Who would benefit by such an ordinance? There is no evidence that people sitting on the sidewalks on the avenues are hurting business. It is the increasingly high commercial rents being charged that are hurting and causing so many businesses to close.
The coalition has made it clear that protests will continue until the mayor and the council abandon this repressive plan.