By Terry Collins, Associated Press
BERKELEY, Calif. -- Squatting on a corner on the always bustling Telegraph Avenue, Brandon Smith and Jamie Dunne, just hours in after hitching rides from Santa Cruz, shook their heads in disbelief at the news as they held signs asking for change - cat food for their 4-week-old kitten.
"Seriously? They want to stop us from sitting on the sidewalks?" said Smith, 25. "Nooo! Not here? Really? But it's Berkeley!"
In the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, the city of Berkeley is in a hotly contested debate on a proposed measure for the November ballot that would ban folks from sitting on sidewalks. Despite loud objections, the City Council last week ordered the city attorney to draft ballot language.
Mayor Tom Bates said his proposal to restrict sitting on sidewalks near bustling businesses is not meant to criminalize the city's large homeless population. Bates, who doesn't drive and mostly walks around town, says he often sees storefronts and sidewalks blocked by groups camping out while others try to sidestep them.
"I have a very good feel for what's happening on the streets. Normal citizens stop me and say 'You've got to do something about this!'" Bates said. "It makes me feel uncomfortable. Visitors are shocked. Merchants tell me that their business is getting killed and they feel intimidated. I had to do something."
But some opposing City Council members and residents say such a law is draconian in a city widely known for peace and tolerance.
"It's everybody's sidewalks," Dunne, 18, said.
Berkeley already has a law on the books that prohibits lying down on sidewalks, though police say only 13 people have been cited since 2010.
The new proposal, which would prohibit sitting on the sidewalk from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. in commercial areas, would be similar to nearby San Francisco's controversial ordinance prohibiting sitting and lying on the pavement. Other cities with similar sit-lie laws include Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle and Santa Cruz and Palo Alto, Calif.
San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr said this week that police are planning to redouble efforts to enforce the ordinance, especially near Golden Gate Park, a haven for the homeless, due to complaints of crime and harassment of pedestrians.
Bates said if voters approve Berkeley's proposed ordinance, it would go into effect in July 2013, giving the city time to figure out how to punish violators.
He said the Berkeley has been very benevolent to the homeless, spending about $10,000 annually per homeless person to provide shelter and counseling services.
"Some may agree, some may disagree," Bates said. "That's why we have to let the voters decide."
Smith, a transient who first came to Berkeley when he was 16, said a new law may be just another daily hurdle like finding his next meal and a place to sleep at night.
"It's either going to make us congregate in other areas or protest," Smith said. "I can see doing both. I consider this to be kind of like my hometown."
Down the street, transients Clifford Collins and Stephan Williams were sprawled just steps away from a record store. They believe that any sit-lie ordinance could lead to destructive behavior.
As Collins spoke, two Berkeley police officers on bicycles gave the pair long stares as they slowly rode pass.
"They don't want you to see the dirty people," an admittedly disheveled Collins, 18, said. "One day we're going to have to pay to sit on the sidewalk. Pretty soon, it's going to be illegal to breathe."
Adds Williams, 21, "Oh yeah. There's going to be total unrest over this."
But one outdoor merchant believes such an ordinance is long overdue, even in ultraliberal Berkeley.
"If it's on the ballot, I'm voting for it," said Roosevelt Washington, whose colorful array of hand sewn crochet hats, incense, homemade scented oils and rare 70's R&B grooves coming from his iPod attract curious onlookers.
He said those clogging the pavement and storefronts scare off patrons with their aggressive panhandling, foul mouths, vicious-looking dogs and urinating in public.
"I'm trying to survive out here, too - legally," said Washington, 44. "I have a business license. I pay to be here. My taxes feed them."
Washington suddenly stops talking, then bellowed a final thought:
"Think about it. This is Berkeley! If this city is considering stopping folks from sitting around on the streets, then it must be serious!" he said.
During last week's raucous council meeting, Frances Towns, 97, said she has hopes in her lifetime that Berkeley will create a center for homeless youth that will offer not only food and shelter, but job training.
She considers them to be the city's "foster children."
"We need to focus on this because just arresting and ticketing youth will not work," Towns said to cheers.
Bates said a sit-lie ordinance may face initial backlash. But eventually, he said, residents will see it is in the best interest of the city.
Bates said there are hundreds of benches to sit on in town. Still, he knows that opponents won't take a new law lying or sitting down.
"We have plenty of places to sit," Bates said. "If this becomes law, it won't make homeless people leave, but it will send a message that Berkeley is more welcoming to the public."