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Are Sidewalks for Everyone or Are Sidewalks for People?

Next time you cross the bay to go to San Francisco, you might have to think twice about where you stop to sit down outside. The November election saw the success of Proposition L, an ordinance prohibiting sitting or lying on sidewalks. The slogans of the campaigns for and against were practically identical: the opposition alledged “Sidewalks are for People,” while the proponents proclaimed, “Sidewalks for People.” Although the sidewalks in question are outisde the pearly gates of Mills, the Campanil Staff feel the issues at stake in Prop L have ramifications in larger debates surrounding public space, individual rights and social justice.

Called the “Civil Sidewalks” proposition by supporters, Prop L restricts sitting or lying on sidewalks from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. throughout the entire city of San Francisco. It also requires the city to maintain a neighborhood outreach plan to provide services for people who need them, although the wording is somewhat vague, describing recipients as “those who chronically sit or lie down on a sidewalk” and the services as including, “but not limited to, health care and social service capacity, evaluation of service delivery and identification of areas for improved service delivery.” The proposition is not specific about how this will be enacted.

The logic of the proposition is that sidewalks should be maintained for “authorized use,” such as travel and commercial activity. Prop L states that individuals who sit or lie on the sidewalk are a potential threat to public safety and deter non-sidewalk sitters from patronizing local businesses.

Our office is divided in its reactions to Prop L – some of us who were appalled by it’s passing feel that Prop L adds to the already large body of laws and legislation which criminalize homelessness, giving police permission to harass those who “chronically” sit and lie – i.e., San Francisco’s large homeless and/or transient population.

The author and head cheerleader of the proposition, Gavin Newsom, has penned other measures affecting homeless populations or San Franciscans on welfare, most notably Proposition N (also known as “Care for Cash”) in 2002. The measure reduced cash benefits for homeless persons from $359 a month to $59 a month, countering these cuts by providing the City would use the money saved to add to services such as those Prop L promises to maintain.

However, it seems that the “care” provided by this program has not solved the issue of homelessness in the city and many of us at the office doubt the ability of Prop L to result in a significant decrease of numbers of citizens who are homeless.

Also, those of us against Prop L would like to remind readers that the super-majority of funding for Yes on L – over $50,000 – came from wealthy CEOs, financiers and other business people who live in the uber-rich neighborhood of Pacific Heights, not Haight-Ashbury where the law would have most effect.

Others of us against Prop L feel it is unreasonable to fine someone for sitting on a sidewalk, and believe the police’s efforts would be better spent in focus on preventing violent crimes rather than punishing non-violent “offenses.”

Some staff members are against Prop L for different reasons, and feel that the measure unfairly punishes all San Francisco-goers and residents and that the problems Prop L promises to deal with are already punishable by existing law.

Members of our staff in favor of Prop L’s passing disagree that the proposition is unnecessary, and argue that the proposition is targeting people – not necessarily homeless at all – who sit and lie on public sidewalks which are thoroughfaires. The use of that space for panhandling, blocking traffic, drug dealing and drug use, and harassing local residents is what Prop L aims to stop. It was not engineered to fine or arrest old, frail men and women or similar homeless citizen populations.

Those of use who are proponents also feel that Prop L leaves intact individual rights to speak, protest and engage in lawful activity on any sidewalk, so long as those activities are consistent with city policies. The proposition doesn’t change or infringe upon rights to protest. We also feel that panhandling, drug use, and aggression cannot be solved by addressing crimes on an individual basis – for example, of the 346 citations handed out in San Francisco for the behaviors above (also including loitering) only 10 people attended court and paid. Prop L will encourage all citizens to start recognizing sidewalks as thoroughfaires.

Despite our inter-office disagreements, we all agree that the similarity in campaign slogans led to a lot of confusion regarding the issue. The Campanil staff urges our readers to interrogate any political slogan and decide for yourself if the effect it will have is the one it promises.