Castro Plazas Become Battleground Over Homeless Rights

01/31/2012 05:10 pm ET
  • Aaron Sankin Assistant San Francisco Editor, The Huffington Post

These days, when people talk about camping in the Castro, they probably have something else on their minds besides a midnight showing of "Rocky Horror."

That's due to a piece of legislation scheduled for a vote at Tuesday evening's San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting that would severely curtail the permitted activities at two popular outdoor spaces near the intersection of Market and Castro streets--Harvey Milk and Jane Warner plazas.

Under the new rules, authored by Castro District Supervisor Scott Weiner, it would be against the law to camp, cook food, smoke, sit on removable chairs during evening hours, sell products without a city-approved permit or bring four-wheeled shopping carts into the plazas.

Even though the legislation would restrict what people can do in the spaces, both locations would remain open 24 hours and be exempt from the sit/lie regulations that apply to regular sidewalks.

Rules for the plazas are currently unclear because they exist in a sort of legal grey area. Harvey Milk Plaza is governed by Muni and, because Jane Warner is part of the city's "Pavement to Parks" program, it's still technically a part of the roadway and governed by the California Vehicle Code.

"Now is the time to make sure that these new spaces, which are not parks, which are not sidewalks, have basic rules in place to ensure they can be used by everyone," Wiener told the San Francisco Chronicle.

However, there are some who feel that exclusion is precisely the goal of Wiener's legislation. Human Rights Organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness Bob Offer-Westort took to the Harvey Milk Plaza late last week to simultaneously protest what many homeless advocates see as a direct attack on one of the city's most vulnerable communities and prove the new legislation was redundant with a state law already on the books prohibiting camping on city sidewalks.

Offer-Westort very publicly pitched a tent at the plaza on Friday night and waited. "I really had one of the nicest evenings of my time in San Francisco," he said in a post on the Coalition on Homelessness's website. "I had expected to be harassed a little, but in fact, the neighborhood was very welcoming, and a few different housed [sic] residents who were strangers to me came down to my tent to hang out for a while. It's nice to be reminded how friendly and welcoming people in this city are."

It took SFPD about half an hour to slap cuffs on Offer-Westort, march him down to Mission Station and book him for a violation of the California state law banning camping in plazas, which carries a $1,000 fine and/or six months in jail.

Offer-Westort told Bay City News his arrest "proves that camping is already illegal in the plazas."

Weiner has called Offer-Westort's move a "publicity stunt," the same charge Offer-Westort has leveled at Weiner's himself.

"[Since Wiener isn't able to solve homelessness,] he proposes legislation which will make life a little harder for homeless people, but which won't actually resolve any of the problems that the [Castro] Community Benefits District complains about," [said Offer-Westort]

"It's cynical politics as usual," he added. "If Supervisor Wiener is able to persuade his colleagues to pass this legislation, [Tuesday], then he can tell his constituents that he addressed their concern. But the problem will remain. Two years from now, he'll need to introduce new anti-homeless legislation. This happens all the time."

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