Sit-lie debate focuses on homelessness

Photo: Tonanzin Klote sits back on Telegraph Avenue. She will be disproportionately affected by the potential Sit-Lie Ordinance, which would make sitting on sidewalks illegal.
Simone Anne Lang/Staff
Tonanzin Klote sits back on Telegraph Avenue. She will be disproportionately affected by the potential Sit-Lie Ordinance, which would make sitting on sidewalks illegal.

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Tonanzin Klote sits cross-legged with a feather in her cap and flowers tied to the jangle of necklaces around her throat. The cap, given to Klote by her boyfriend Daniel Ballance, has gained character over the years - a feather here, carefully-stitched tears and tatters there.

The pair, both homeless, have been together since Ballance first saw Klote seated on the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street playing her guitar three years ago.

"I've been hanging out here every day since I was 14," said Ballance, 22. "(The police) ask us, why do you always come here?"

The question of the homeless presence along Telegraph and in the Downtown has been discussed more and more in recent months by the business community - a segment of which is pushing for the implementation of a sit-lie ordinance that would make it illegal for individuals to rest on city sidewalks.

"Anytime you have economic upheaval or economic hard times, people start looking even harder for solutions that can turn things around and (sit-lie) is one of many tools," said Mark McLeod, chair of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce's Government Affairs Committee, which monitors legislation that directly affects businesses and represents members of the chamber.

Many business owners along Berkeley's main thoroughfares believe that the homeless presence near their establishments discourages customers from frequenting the area.

Berkeley City Councilmember Susan Wengraf said that while she does not see homelessness as the sole deterrent for customer traffic, she has heard complaints of discomfort from her constituents in the Berkeley Hills.

"Most people don't want to be stepping over people as they leave their stores," she said.

A 2010 study conducted by the city's Office of Economic Development showed that main thoroughfares saw the city's smallest recessionary declines. While spending along Fourth Street dropped by 21.5 percent, sales on Telegraph and in the Downtown dipped 6.9 percent and 4.6 percent respectively from March 2008 to March 2010.

"It's true that some businesses are struggling - we're in the middle of a recession," said Elisa Della-Piana, director of the Neighborhood Justice Clinic at the East Bay Community Law Center, a clinic that provides legal representation to homeless residents of Alameda County. "But to think that homeless people sitting on the sidewalk are in any way to blame for the failure of business is making them a scapegoat for a problem that's larger and harder to understand and fix."

Today, Klote - who is five months pregnant - struggles with existing laws in Berkeley that aim to address the homeless presence in commercial districts. It is already illegal for individuals to intentionally block the sidewalk with their bodies or objects, according to the Berkeley Municipal Code.

"Food's not an issue, neither is the cold - the weather here is great - the only issue Berkeley has is the law," Klote said. "I got a ticket for resting in the doorway (at Amoeba). I would've left if they'd asked me."

Della-Piana said citations like these perpetuate, rather than solve, homelessness, saddling individuals with the kind of criminal records that keep them on the street.

Ballance said his mother now resides near train tracks in a destitute area in Contra Costa County because a misdemeanor bench warrant prevents her from continuing to live in Berkeley.

"It's exile," he said.

Ballance said he and Klote are told to move by the police nightly and that he fears for their health - as well as that of other homeless individuals - should they be prevented from sitting.

However, a sit-lie ordinance would not necessarily preclude drastic police actions or forced movement, according to John Caner, executive director of the Downtown Berkeley Association.

Nonetheless, some opponents question the basic premise of a sit-lie ordinance altogether, pointing to the law's possible redundancy and its potential to result in selective enforcement.

"The ironic thing about the sit-lie law is that ... it applies to my four year old who sits to tie his shoes, it applies to Girl Scouts on the sidewalk, it applies to kids selling lemonade," Della-Piana said. "It applies to everyone."


Noor Al-Samarrai covers Berkeley communities.

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