Stand Up for the Right to Sit Down - Sitting Is Not a CrimeBy Cathleen Williams
Berkeley voters have delivered a resounding blow to a proposed local ordinance, Measure S, that would have made it a crime to sit down on the sidewalk in commercial districts, a crime punishable by fines and even jail time. On election day 2012, Measure S was defeated after a campaign in which business interests spent tens of thousands to pass the sitting ban.

The victory reflects the work of a coalition of homeless activist and service organizations, including the Homeless Action Committee, Western Regional Advocacy Project, Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency, and Disabled People Outside; civil rights organizations like the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild; political parties like local Democratic Clubs, the Green Party, and the Peace and Freedom Party; and neighborhood organizations like Berkeley Citizens Action.

As reported in Street Spirit, their local homeless newspaper, the opposition campaign was directed at talking to Berkeleyans about the reasons people end up living on the streets, and the reasons we shouldn’t pass laws that strip people of their civil liberties. These laws aren’t a solution to economic problems or homelessness.

Berkeley has been a magnet for young people since the sixties, and the presence of young adults on the streets was a primary target of Measure S. The presence on the streets of ‘transitional age’ adults - between 18 and 24 - is on the rise nationwide.

“Across the country, tens of thousands of underemployed and jobless young people, many with college credits or work histories, are struggling to house themselves in the wake of the recession, which has left workers between the age of 18 and 24 with the highest unemployment rates of all adults.” (New York Times, 12/19/12) Los Angeles, for example, had shelter capacity for only 17% of the thousands of young adults counted in a city wide survey in 2011. Roots, a young adult homeless shelter in Seattle - one of the few across the country that provides shelter and services for young people - has to hold a lottery every night for the 35 spaces it offers in a church basement.

According to Carol Denney, an independent journalist and homeless activist who spent countless hours working against Measure S, “We weren’t going to let this happen to the young people and to other homeless folks who come to Berkeley to find community and to find themselves! We wrote articles for local papers, we knocked on thousands of doors, we staged fun demonstrations like the ‘Olympic Sitting Contest’ and we got artists, poets and musicians involved.” As Denney points out “the energy spent on Measure S should be redirected to something positive that we know will work. We want a City youth center, for example. A haven where young people can work in teams, complete
projects, rest, and revive. Not a law that makes it a crime to sit on the sidewalks.”