Quick Hits on Berkeley Sit/Lie

On June 12th, Berkeley’s City Council will vote on a “sit-lie” ordinance intended to prevent un-housed, homeless, and otherwise indigent people from sitting on city sidewalks during the day.

This is a terrible idea. The ordinance would turn what is at worst a minor inconvenience for those of us with a low tolerance for disorder into a social problem that demands city resources. Apparently, a similar ordinance in San Francisco has led to the police repeatedly ticketing a tiny number of older homeless people over and over again. I didn’t come to Berkeley to study homeless and I don’t consider myself an expert on the issue. But, through my work with Food Not Bombs in People’s Park, I’ve learned a thing or two about Berkeley’s long history of conflict over public space and the various “publics” that use it. Being unable to attend the City Council Meeting tomorrow, I offer a few quick thoughts:

1) We will always have the homeless (if we choose to). One of the most important ideological tricks that the right has played on us—and the left increasingly accepted—is the notion that “we will always have the homeless”. It’s a clever way of reframing the debate that refocuses us away from addressing the root causes of homeless towards trying to figure out how to manage what is reframed as a set of inevitable nuisances. But this framing is belied by reality: as Teresa Gowan documents in her (much recommended) “Hoboes, Hustlers, and Backsliders”, homeless as a large scale social phenomenon virtually disappeared from the 1930s to the late ‘70s, only to expand rapidly in the Reagan years.

Unless you believe that, over a five year period of the early 1980s, Americans suddenly started using lots more drugs, had a lot more mental illness, and became much less willing to work, it’s difficult to explain the sudden explosion of homelessness in terms of individual factors. Instead, we should remember that we, as a society, chose to de-institutionalize the mentally ill, slash social programs, skimp on services for returning veterans and ignore the impacts of globalization on the working class—all contingent factors behind the inevitable rise of homelessness. The nuisances of homelessness are not something imposed on us from the outside, but something that we have systematically created for ourselves.

2) This should be obvious but… Very, very, very few people in Berkeley are homeless because the want to be or have chosen to engage in the behaviors—like panhandling—that come with it. I say this because Berkeley’s homeless include a particularly uncharismatic element: street kids who—I am often told—have “chosen” their situation out of a desire to travel, avoid work, or fight the man. Most people of the white-liberal persuasion are willing to give a pass to homeless Vietnam Vets (and maybe even older African-American vets) but cannot abide crust-punks flying signs that ask for money to buy weed.

I get it: many of Berkeley’s un-housed community do not fit our image of the deserving poor. But, having interacted with scores of homeless people in the course of my research, I have only met two who claim to be homeless by choice—and neither of them panhandle. There is very little romantic about life on the streets: accessing basic services for shelter or healthcare entails endless degradation, and, for many, the meal we serve as Food Not Bombs is the only food they’ll get in the day. Ultimately, of course, we should try to break down the grouping of the poor into “deserving” and “undeserving”, but in the meantime, we should remember that there are hidden histories of abuse, disempowerment, and marginalization that lead people to sit on sidewalks and ask for spare change.

3) You can go elsewhere. They can’t. Thanks to my background, experiences, and identity as a white, heterosexual male, I am lucky enough to feel comfortable virtually anywhere in Berkeley, including in spaces occupied by homeless people. I acknowledge that others may not, and maybe for good reasons that, for aforementioned reasons, I can’t entirely understand. When I have raised the notions of “urban clearing” or “revitalization” with my classmates—expecting that they would be similarly horrified by the prospect—I’ve been surprised by the number of people who support them. They resent that places like Telegraph Avenue or People’s Park are, to them, uncomfortable and unsafe spaces.

And so I offer a somewhat insensitive retort: you can go elsewhere, they can’t. Homeless people don’t come to Berkeley to partake in some romantic sixties counterculture. They’re here because they won’t starve or freeze to death and the police are slightly less likely to harass them than in San Francisco. Berkeley is as close to a haven for the homeless as exists in our society. While that might create inconveniences for the rest of us, we should acknowledge that we can go be white privileged people and not get harassed by police or panhandlers pretty much anywhere.  I’m not suggesting that those in favor of Sit/Lie should move elsewhere—although I would note that there are an almost infinite number of neo-liberal, gentrified-as-shit law-and-order hellholes where you could go and not be regularly confronted with the after-effects of welfare-state retrenchment—but arguing that maybe you could just go to virtually any street in Berkeley other than Telegraph Avenue.

4) And jeez, we are Berkeley after all. I came to Berkeley expecting to find a progressive utopia. I’ve been sobered on this image by some vigorous baton thrusts and the realization that, like virtually everywhere, Berkeley is wracked by tensions between business and community, between tolerance and order, and between ideals and reality. But Berkeley is still special: a place that has in the past bucked and resisted national trends to criminalize homelessness, militarize the police, and run the poor and marginalized out of town. There are lots of places with Sit/Lie ordinances; there is only one Berkeley.

For interested, the Berkeley City Council can be reached at: lmaio@cityofberkeley.info, dmoore@cityofberkeley.info, kworthington@cityofberkeley.info, jarreguin@cityofberkeley.info, swengraf@cityofberkeley.info, gwozniak@cityofberkeley.info, lcapitelli@cityofberkeley.info, manderson@cityofberkeley.info. I’ve already received several personal replies, so if you are at all inspired, please contact them before tomorrow night. For those of you who tend to think no political action ever works and everything is 100% fucked, I would note that Berkeley activists have been successful in defeating similar ordinances in the past.

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