By Judith Scherr, Inter Press Service News:
Being Young and Homeless in the US Could Get Even Worse
Saturday, 14 July 2012 09:40
Berkeley, California – Amber, 24, who’s been living on the streets half her life, was sitting on a sunny sidewalk in downtown Berkeley last week, cuddling her three-month-old puppy and talking to a friend. But if voters approve a measure the city council placed on the November ballot, sitting on the sidewalk – after a warning – could cost her 75 dollars.
“That law will give us tickets we can’t pay, then we’ll have warrants and end up in jail,” said Amber, who “spranges” – asks for spare change – to feed herself and her unborn child.
Although the council chambers was packed with those opposing the law, the city council, at the end of a dramatic meeting that went past midnight on Jul. 11, approved putting the sit ban to a vote. The proposed ordinance is similar to statutes in Seattle, Washington, Anchorage, Alaska and Santa Cruz, San Francisco and Palo Alto, California. It would ban sitting on the sidewalk in commercial areas between seven a.m. and 10 p.m.
Some four dozen public speakers addressed the council, many arguing that the economic downturn is to blame for Berkeley’s vacant storefronts, and that punishing the homeless won’t bring back business.
John DeClercq, Berkeley Chamber of Commerce CEO, the sole speaker favouring the measure, said the law would make the city’s business districts “more welcoming”.
Once the public speakers queue wound down, the meeting took an unexpected turn when several activists stood up and led the public in the civil rights protest song, “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
The three councilmembers opposing the sit ban joined the sing-along, as the five other councilmembers present left the room. When they returned, in the midst of chaos, the majority voted to place the measure on the ballot.
The dissident councilmembers contend the vote was taken without council debate and therefore illegal. “They can’t stand a people’s democracy,” said Councilmember Max Anderson.
Hundreds of cities around the United States have laws advocates say unfairly target the homeless, including bans on sitting, lying, begging and placing objects on the sidewalk. Other laws, such as prohibitions to loitering, drinking alcohol in public, smoking and jaywalking, are applied to this population selectively, homeless advocates say.
Two years ago, San Francisco banned sitting on all city sidewalks. But the law hasn’t stopped the practice. IPS visited San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury commercial district and counted nine individuals seated on sidewalks.