S.F. Ballot Measure Targets City's Homeless

A proposal in San Francisco to stop people from sleeping and sitting on public sidewalks has stirred some tension in a city that's traditionally been compassionate to the homeless. An anonymous group of artists is posting critical signs around town labeling supporters of the proposed ordinance the "Sit and Lie Posse."

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Tomorrow, voters in San Francisco will have the opportunity to change how the city deals with its homeless population. A local ballot issue would ban daytime loitering.

As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, it is a tough measure for San Francisco since the homeless there have been mostly left alone.

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RICHARD GONZALES: It's been more than 40 years since the Summer of Love, but the San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district is still the home of the hip with its cafes, boutiques and head shops.

It's also a magnet for scruffy transients, young and old, who hang out in front of the storefronts here, like Frank Carmelo's(ph) shop for high-end eyewear.

Mr. FRANK CARMELO: I've been here on the street for about 12 years. And it gets to a point where after a while, you get a little bit fed up with people harassing you that are sitting on the sidewalks, asking for money, asking for food, asking for cigarettes, asking for dope. It just gets a little old after a while. And sometimes you see a lot of things that you really don't want to see - fights, drug abuse, alcoholism.

GONZALES: That's why Carmelo and other shop owners are supporting Proposition L, a measure that would make it illegal to sit or lie on a public sidewalk. About 60 cities around the country have such a law in their books, but the proposal generates lots of heat in a city where tolerance is worn like a badge.

Mr. JIM SIEGEL (Owner, Distractions): People have a right to be on the sidewalks. If you're homeless, where are you supposed to go?

GONZALES: Jim Siegel operates a head shop called Distractions.

Mr. SIEGEL: I'm one of the few merchants on Haight Street that's opposed to L. Most of the merchants are very much in favor of it. They want Haight Street to change. I want to keep it funky like it used to always be when I was growing up here. I mean, it's my heart and soul. I want the color. I want the character. The tourists come to see that. And they're going to whitewash this whole neighborhood and the whole city.

GONZALES: San Francisco Police Chief George Gascon supports the proposal. He says there's no intention to target the homeless, but Gascon says Proposition L would help police deal with another problem.

Mr. GEORGE GASCON (Police Chief, San Francisco Police Department): A lot of the people were talking about it. Especially in the Haight, they're not even people from San Francisco. It's a very transitory population. They come here because they have been led to believe that this is a place that they can come in and party and, you know, get high and just basically create havoc. There are really no rules in this community.

GONZALES: San Francisco supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who represents the Haight-Ashbury district, says police already have the authority to deal with transients and aggressive panhandling.

Mr. ROSS MIRKARIMI (Supervisor, District 5, San Francisco): They're using Haight Street for right or wrong reasons as the poster child, but it's a citywide law, both in merchant quarters and residential communities, neighborhoods. There is no city or state that has implemented a law at this level, and so there's nothing in the ballot handbook that speaks to cause.

GONZALES: Mirkarimi has proposed a countermeasure on the ballot, which calls for more police foot patrols to deal with unruly transients, but Police Chief Gascon says cops on foot are slower to deal with emergencies than police in patrol cars.

Back at his eyewear shop, Frank Carmelo says he doesn't want anyone to think he's got anything against homeless people.

Mr. CARMELO: Don't get me wrong. I feel for people that have no place to live, that are down and out. I am not against them. I'm against the people that are out there just really just causing problems and making it hard for everybody just to kind of coexist here on Haight Street.

GONZALES: Still, there is a sense here that voters' decision on Prop L will be widely viewed as either a statement on San Franciscans' tolerance or a reflection of the city's fatigue with people on the street.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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