San Francisco: ousting loiterers, but losing character?

A proposed "sit/lie" law for San Francisco would clear up loiterer havens like the Haight-Ashbury district, but critics say it will take away some of the city's culture.

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The city wants to enact a new "sit/lie" law that prohibits loiterers in areas such as Haight-Ashbury.
Ben Margot/AP
Christian Peaslee (c.) speaks with San Francisco police officers in the Haight-Ashbury district of the city on Feb. 3.

In addition to its tie-dye T-shirt shops and Summer of Love memorabilia, San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood has become known for its pushy panhandlers who squat on sidewalks and, according to many merchants, drive off tourists and antagonize locals.

San Francisco police and Mayor Gavin Newsom say the solution to the problem rests in a new "sit/lie" law that would prohibit anyone from camping out on the city’s sidewalks from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. While Haight-Ashbury’s loiterers prompted the city to pursue the law, Mr. Newsom introduced legislation to the board of supervisors Tuesday that would apply to the entire city.

The ordinance, they say, would give police greater latitude to keep the sidewalks clear and move out aggressive panhandlers. Offenders would be warned after a first offense, and subsequent violations could bring fines and misdemeanor convictions.

The idea has sparked debate in tolerant San Francisco. Is the proposal overly broad? Will it unfairly target the homeless? Have the young homeless people, who call themselves "street kids," become part of the Haight-Ashbury culture – remnants of the 1960s movement that made the neighborhood famous?

No on all counts, say the city’s police. The proposed measure will simply help clear up a growing nuisance that merchants and residents say is hurting business and negatively impacting their quality of life.

“The goal of the sit/lie law is not to arrest everyone,” said Assistant Police Chief Kevin Cashman at a Monday meeting on the proposed law. “It’s to change behavior.”

He said that many other cities known for their openness, such as Austin, Texas, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas, have implemented sit/lie ordinances. He told the city’s board of supervisors on Monday that San Francisco would model its law after Seattle’s sit/lie ordinance, which withstood a federal court challenge.

Newsom told the San Francisco Examiner that the debate over the proposed sit/lie law shouldn't focus on homelessness. "The vast majority of people this would affect aren’t even homeless," he said.

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