Five Years In, Sit/Lie Law May Come Under Review

Photo: Franco Folini/Flickr
By Camden Avery - Published on August 22, 2015.

Five years after it was passed by 54 percent of San Francisco voters and went on the city's books, the "sit/lie" ordinance, which allows city police to cite people for sitting on the street, might be coming under review.

A recent Department of Justice statement called into question the constitutionality of a sit/lie law in Boise, ID, designed largely as a measure to curtail visible homelessness. According to the statement, "Plaintiffs argue that criminalizing public sleeping in a city without adequate shelter space constitutes criminalizing homelessness itself, in violation of the Eighth Amendment."

As a result, the law has been brought back into the spotlight with potential implications for San Francisco, and particularly the Upper Haight, as pointed out by SFist.

Sit/lie was largely intended as a legal tool to allow police to physically move homeless men and women off the streets and sidewalks. As part of the law, officers are required to warn offenders to move along before citing them, and to provide information on social services that can help them get off the streets.

The SFPD district that deploys sit/lie most often is Park District, home of the Haight. The results have been mixed, and include an early, perceived "spillover" effect from displacing homeless people out of the Haight, or off of Haight Street and into the Alvord Lake area.

At its best, Sit/Lie in theory allows the police to move disruptive people away from technically public spaces, like the sidewalks in front of storefronts or people's front steps, and keeps public areas from getting rowdy.

But a recent 48 Hills article by Haight resident Calvin Welch examined Sit/Lie on its fifth anniversary, calling it a bald political maneuver that failed as a solution for homelessness. According to the numbers cited by Welch, homelessness in the Haight was actually at an all-time low when Gavin Newsom began moving forward sit/lie legislation.

Welch also argues that most of San Francisco's current homeless population is on the street not by choice, but because of skyrocketing rents. According to the city's 2015 Homeless Count, 71 percent of SF's homeless were city residents before they became homeless (an increase from 61 percent in 2013), and 61 percent cite either high housing costs or lack of money to move as the reason for their homelessness. Meanwhile, the number of homeless people residing outdoors has risen, from 28 percent in 2011 to 46 percent in 2015.

(As a comparison to other types of anti-homelessness efforts, between five and six years ago Sit/Lie and other "disincentive measures" eclipsed the city's Housing First Program and other efforts to rehabilitate or house the homeless.)

Over the years there have been numerous articles and reviews of the law's efficacy, especially in the Haight, where its use is most prevalent. As of the time of this posting we have been unable to reach SFPD's Park Station Captain John Sanford for comment as to how a decrease in sit/lie citations might affect the Haight.

Meanwhile, the fate of sit/lie laws in San Francisco and elsewhere remains uncertain. The DOJ's article is still strictly a "statement," calling for further investigation, with the conclusion that:

"If the Court finds that it is impossible for homeless individuals to secure shelter space on some nights because no beds are available, no shelter meets their disability needs, or they have exceeded the maximum stay limitations, then the Court should also find that enforcement of the ordinances under those circumstances criminalizes the status of being homeless and violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution."

In other words, for sit/lie to be constitutional, the city would have to provide indoor sleeping arrangements for every homeless person in the city.

At the earliest, no implications would be coming down the line for San Francisco until the DOJ decides on the Boise case.

With a potential legal review in the works, it's time for another checkup: is Sit/Lie working for the Haight? What would happen if it became unenforceable? Let us know what you think in the comments.

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