Sidewalk standoff

Palo Alto's recently adopted sit-lie ban prompted a stream of angry letters to City Hall, several protests and a failed attempt at a referendum. Now, Palo Alto appears to be headed for another round of debate about the treatment of the homeless in town.

by Peter Gauvin

This is the first in a three-part joint Civic Journalism project presented by the Palo Alto Weekly and Stanford journalism students. For the next three weeks we will examine the debate surrounding Palo Alto's recently approved sit-lie ban and explore issues of homelessness, panhandling and economic vitality in downtown Palo Alto. For more details about this joint project, see the Our Town column.

Palo Alto's newly adopted ban on sitting on University Avenue has done little to change the behavior of Robert Fulton. Fulton, a self-described alcoholic and panhandler, is openly defiant. He will continue to panhandle on University Avenue and sit down on the sidewalk if he sees no cops present.

And if an officer stops by?

"I'll just stand up," he said.

Fulton, who recently turned 54 but looks much older after 20 years of living on the streets, says he panhandles enough to pay for his vice--$2 bottles of white port.

"When you sit down (on the sidewalk) with a cup, than people know what you're doing," said Fulton, seated on a bench in front of Walgreen's at University and Bryant Street.

On this afternoon, the Wyoming native and Navy veteran is about to move to the sidewalk in order to earn some money. It's difficult to panhandle sitting on the benches, he explained.

"I don't give a damn if they throw me in jail. I spent about five years in the county jail (for various alcohol-related offenses)," he said.

Despite Fulton's defiance, police have issued no citations for violations of the city's much-debated "sit-lie" ban since the law took effect April 24. Police are required to issue a warning, followed by a $100 citation for the first violation (second and third violations are $300 and $500, respectively).

The sit-lie ordinance was adopted by the City Council on March 10 on a 7-2 vote. Council member Jean McCown and Vice Mayor Ron Andersen were staunchly opposed.

The law bans sitting or lying on University Avenue sidewalks between High and Cowper streets from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. It also prohibits sitting on milk crates or any other device that is not a fixed piece of furniture or provided by a business establishment.

The ordinance was first proposed last summer along with two other ordinances designed to clean up the downtown. One law banned open containers around stores that sell alcohol, and the other banned panhandling in public parking lots. Those two were passed without controversy on July 8.

The new laws were also intended to help the city's year-old downtown police patrol, for which $217,000 was added to the budget last year.

The sit-lie ordinance, however, met with a fire storm of opposition. Defenders of the poor said the law was designed as an end-run around anti-panhandling laws, which have yet to be ruled constitutional, and to keep the homeless from tarnishing Palo Alto's well-to-do image.

Police said it was about public safety. Downtown streets have become increasingly crowded, and teens and homeless sitting on the sidewalks are creating safety hazards, particularly for senior citizens, they said. Members of the Chamber of Commerce said it was about the unfortunate need to legislate what is and is not socially acceptable behavior.

At the July 8 hearing, Council member Andersen made a motion to kill the ordinance but got no support. However, McCown said she was surprised by the lack of data from police demonstrating that a safety problem existed.

Council members Fazzino, Schneider and Liz Kniss expressed support for some version of the law, while others remained quiet.

The council referred the measure back to the City Attorney's Office. This also gave the city's Human Relations Commission time to discuss it. Commission members were unanimously opposed.

The proposal was scheduled to come back to the council in September, and then in November, but it was crowded off the agenda by issues such as the demolition moratorium on pre-1940 homes.

On Nov. 22, Berkeley received clearance from a U.S. District Court judge to begin enforcing a similar ordinance banning sitting on sidewalks within six feet of buildings. But Palo Alto City Attorney Ariel Calonne said that wasn't a factor in the delay here. "We're not worried about legal concerns about sit-lie," Calonne said. "It has been delayed for purely internal scheduling reasons."

In the meantime, at the request of the council, the penalty for violators was changed from a misdemeanor to an infraction to eliminate the risk of imprisonment.

Assistant Police Chief Lynne Johnson said the only way a sit-lie offender could be jailed is if a warrant already had been issued for that person's arrest.

The measure finally returned to the council on Jan. 21, and opponents clogged the meeting. More than 50 people signed up to speak on the issue. Twenty spoke that night before the hearing ran late and was continued until March 10. Most said the law was clearly targeted at harassing the poor.

"The California state penal code section 647(c) clearly prohibits obstructing the sidewalk," said resident Roy Jacob. "This proposal is about poverty."

When asked, police could not cite a single documented incident of anyone tripping on another person downtown. Downtown officers Derek Souza and Sandra Brown, however, said they often witnessed people having to divert their flow around people sitting on the sidewalk, particularly on busy weekend nights.

That didn't wash with opponent Glenna Violette. "There's all kinds of distractions (for pedestrians)," she said. "There's no way you're going to remove all of them. My husband is distracted by good-looking women."

At the March 10 hearing, McCown urged two amendments to the law: that sidewalk sitters would have to actually be causing an obstruction before they could be cited; and that the law sunset out of existence after 18 months (as the youth curfew did after one year). Both failed on votes of 6-3, with McCown, Andersen and Council member Sandy Eakins in the minority.

"We have no incident of anyone tripping on another human being in downtown Palo Alto," Andersen argued. "We are reluctant to admit that we don't like human grunge on our streets."

The majority said the law is targeted at a specific behavior, not a group of people. Plus, Fazzino said, it is limited to the city's most congested street and people could still sit on benches along University or on the sidewalk on side streets if they prefer.

"The common sense argument is that sidewalks are reserved for walking," said Council member Dick Rosenbaum.

A group of homeless people and homeless activists, CALM, Citizens Against Legislated Meanness, tried to get enough signatures to get a referendum of the sit-lie ban on the November ballot. However, the group fell well short of the 2,207 signatures needed by the April 23 deadline.

Larry Duncan, a homeless person and an organizer of CALM, said the group is considering an initiative that would include the changes to the law McCown pushed for. "The council will then be forced with a decision: the will of the people or the Downtown Marketing Committee?" he said.

Another group of opponents, led by former Human Relations Commissioner Trina Lovercheck, staged a sit-in protest on the night the ordinance took effect. An estimated 150 to 200 people participated in the peaceful demonstration.

Lovercheck said no other protests are planned at this time. But they plan to advocate for public restrooms downtown, financial support for the 52-bed homeless shelter at the Menlo Park VA Hospital and that the council address the city's Homelessness Task Force recommendations, which were sent to the council last summer and have been mothballed since then.

Council member Fazzino maintains that sit-lie is not an attempt to drive the homeless from downtown; otherwise why would Palo Alto spend more on homeless programs than probably any other city on the Peninsula, he said.

"This issue has been magnified far beyond its importance," Fazzino said. "I don't view sit-lie as purely and simply a homelessness issue. I think they're separate issues. . . . We had received a number of complaints, from seniors in particular, that it was becoming more and more difficult to navigate on downtown streets because of people sitting on sidewalks, tables on sidewalks, news racks and other obstacles."

Paul Gilbert, chair of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the ACLU will be watching to see if the sit-lie law is enforced selectively on poor people before considering a lawsuit.