Why SF’s Proposed Sit/Lie Laws Are a Terrible Idea

In San Francisco currently, there is something of a debate brewing about Mayor Newsom’s proposed sit/lie laws, which would make it illegal for anyone to sit or lie on any public curb or street in San Francisco (with a couple of exceptions).

The intersections with disability here are rather clear. For one thing, there are some intersections between homelessness and disability, because some homeless people are, for example, mentally ill or have disabling physical problems. Do either of these things make them unworthy of compassion, or not human? Of course not, but from the way this proposed ordinance is designed, it is, on a very basic level, criminalizing homelessness even more than it is already criminalized (not to mention socially stigmatized), while taking extra “common sense” steps to avoid citing non-homeless people for an offense. Observe the following response to concerns that SF police would begin to crack down on non-homeless people were the laws to go into effect:

During a heated, five-hour Board of Supervisors public safety committee hearing on the issue Monday, Adachi showed photographs of behavior that would be illegal under Newsom’s proposed law: a well-heeled tourist sitting on her luggage as she waits for a cab, a little boy sitting on a sidewalk clutching his skateboard, and tourists sitting on a curb and gazing up at the sights.

Assistant Police Chief Kevin Cashman said all of those people would be warned first to move and that none of them would probably receive a citation.

“Obviously common sense is going to be part of the training with enforcement of this statute,” he said at the hearing.

Ah, yes, “common sense.” Common sense, apparently, still makes the further stigmatization of homeless people de rigeur. Because apparently, they don’t deserve to sit down in public, unlike “well-heeled” tourists and neighborhood residents. I wonder what the response to a person with disabilities — tourist or not — needing to sit down on a public street might be? Someone waiting for an ambulance? While that is approaching a bit of a slippery slope argument (which I generally like to avoid), it is worth considering, simply because “common sense” will mean different things to different people — those whose job it is to enforce the statute included.

Also interesting is the framing of this ordinance in terms of concern for children. From one of the SF Gate articles:

Newsom, who bought a home in the Haight recently, was convinced to support an ordinance after walking along Haight Street with his infant daughter and seeing someone smoking crack and blocking the entrance of a business.

Certainly, children need to be protected from dangerous situations or potentially dangerous situations, but is an ordinance that criminalizes the poor and homeless — not all of whom are recreational drug users or addicts — really the way to do it?

Additionally, nowhere have I seen any plan to increase the number of homeless shelters or services for homeless people attached to this ordinance. The implicit message behind these proposed sit/lie laws seems clear: It’s too bad you’re homeless, but don’t you dare be homeless on our streets, because it might make our city look bad. Oh, and you certainly shouldn’t expect the city to help you not be homeless — even after it cites you for breaking the sit/lie law.

(Cross-posted to ham blog)

About Annaham

Annaham is a feminist with several disabilities who occasionally updates her personal blog. She currently lives in California's Bay Area with her partner and a silly little dog named Winston. She is currently getting her Master’s in Women and Gender Studies; her research interests include disability and cultural/social attitudes surrounding it, the body, gender, nontraditional media, art of all kinds, and social equity. You can reach her by emailing Annaham at disabledfeminists dot com.

12 thoughts on “Why SF’s Proposed Sit/Lie Laws Are a Terrible Idea

  1. That is SO FUCKED UP. This reminds me of the Anatole France quote “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

    I’ve been trying to figure out what else to say for a while now, and all I can manage is THIS IS SO FUCKED UP.

  2. They mention tourists as acceptable sitters, while proposing hiding the homeless or “undesirables” from said tourists.

    And I’m not “well-heeled” (what does that mean anyway? Good shoes?) but I sat on the curb today waiting for my mom to pick me up. I sit on the curb when we’re kicked out because of a fire alarm and it’s 2 am and there is nowhere else to go. It would be so funny (hey, it’s 2 am) if the police stop before going in the building to give us all “warnings”. And then write us up when we don’t move after they leave the building.

    “Common sense” and police, bah. This and the Arizona law make me sick. Because I bet the tourists were um, how do I say this, WHITE.

  3. But Anatole France was not cynical enough! In actual fact, the law gives the rich a warning for sleeping under the bridge, and runs the poor in for the same behavior.

    Kevin Cashman appears to be working from a dictionary where “common sense” and “profiling” have somehow had their definitions reversed.

  4. They tried this in Portland, OR — for many of the same unstated reasons — and it was declared unconstitutional. I recommend looking up the coverage on portlandmercury.com (same stupid name: sit/lie ordinance), if you’re interested. They’re not deterred, though; they’re trying it again. Yuck.

    It’d be really funny if the PDX cops have to go up and down the downtown transit mall and “warn” every tired commuter waiting for a bus, but that’s not going to happen, now is it? 8-(

  5. @Astrid, you are not wrong. This is really vile unpleasant shit. These sorts of ordnances are designed to make problem people go away and fail categorically to acknowledge the structural problems that create systemic poverty and homelessness especially in the US. They treat homeless people as a cosmetic problem and provide only the most superficial of solutions.

    Of course addressing the structural issues that create large-scale systemic poverty and homelessness would be expensive and would definitely turn the US into the Socialist hell the kyriarchist oligarchy supporters keep shouting President Obama is leading the country towards. If only!
    .-= kaninchenzero´s last blog ..For trouble Who has to Grade Papers =-.

  6. I was homeless several years ago in Seattle. The law was not enforced equally. Police would hassle the homeless, who often spend most of the day walking, for sitting down. However, if the people sitting were college students, they were left alone. (in the u-district) Downtown, they had these MID people (kinda like cop-lookouts) who were always nice enough to give me warnings-telling me you need to move before the cops get here because someone complained that you have been sitting here for ten minutes. These laws are designed to be discriminatory. The town I live in now (no longer homeless thankfully) has passed an anti-panhandling ordinance. Something tells me this law will be enforced selectively-I doubt they will mess with girl scouts in front of the grocery store, but they will go after someone on a corner with a sign. I agree there should be laws prohibiting aggressive panhandling, but not all panhandlers are aggressive.

  7. @ K0: so where should all the homeless people go? If the U.S. and other governments aren’t going to provide real, structural solutions, making homeless people invisible, will not help. They got to live somewhere, after all. But apparently, the powers that be don’t believe so.

  8. @LJF Wolffe: Wow, that just made me realize how often I’ve sat on a sidewalk while waiting on the buses that are often 10 or more minutes late. And I could easily see the town I’m currently in trying to pass such a law, but they haven’t done so yet as far as I know.

    @apathykills: And what of students who might be mistaken for homeless people– say, a scruffy-looking student with autistic mannerisms wearing a backpack?

  9. I don’t have a good answer, @Astrid. Personally I don’t want to make homeless people just go away. I want structural change and social welfare and affordable housing. I would like my governments to stop making things worse for people whose lives are already very difficult is all.

    If I gave the impression I was endorsing policies making homeless people move elsewhere without addressing the causes of homelessness I apologise. I should have stated my opposition to those policies more clearly.
    .-= kaninchenzero´s last blog ..For trouble Who has to Grade Papers =-.

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