Sunday, May 20, 2007

Berkeley Proposes Use of Expanded Outdoor Smoking Ban to Keep Homeless People Away from Stores

In order to protect local businesses by ridding their outdoor environments of congregating homeless people, the city of Berkeley is considering expanding its outdoor smoking ordinance and using that law to keep the homeless off the streets in its retail districts.

According to an article in the Berkeley Daily Planet, Mayor Tom Bates is attempting to get the homeless off the streets, and he's doing it in part by proposing a new law that would ban sitting on the street for a prolonged period of time and in part by proposing to expand the existing ban on smoking outside of buildings by extending the smoke-free boundary from 20 to 25 feet and enforcing that law against homeless persons who might not be able to be approached by police for any other legitimate reason.

These changes are part of a broader proposal by the mayor - entitled "Public Commons for Everyone." While the proposal apparently calls for increased services for homeless persons hanging out on the streets in front of Berkeley's crowded retail district in the area south of its UC campus, it has been criticized by advocates for the poor and the homeless who say the proposed ordinance could be misused, may violate people's civil rights, and fails to address the underlying reasons for the widespread homelessness problem in Berkeley, including the lack of affordable housing.

According to the article: "Dan McMullan of Disabled People Outside, told the Daily Planet he feared that even something as popular as a no-smoking ordinance could be misused. Storeowners who come outside to smoke won’t get cited, but homeless people will, McMullan said. ... Speaking to the committee on behalf of the Berkeley Community Coalition, which mostly represents service providers, boona cheema, executive director of Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency, called on the mayor and city manager to meet directly with homeless people to have 'open and honest dialogue as to the total purpose of the Public Commons for Everyone initiative and with their input find ways to influence street behavior without creating new laws.' ...

"'The religious community says ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’ I feel this is the antithesis,' said Sally Hindman, a member of the coalition and director of Young Aspirations, Young Artists (YAYA). The mayor has said in previous meetings that this initiative is important to force 'service-resistant' people into getting services. But Hindman, who describes herself as a strong supporter of Mayor Tom Bates said, 'It’s not right to talk about service-resistant people when there are not enough services.' What needs to happen is that the community should support adequate services for those in need, including building adequate housing, she said.”

See San Francisco Chronicle commentary by Matier & Ross here.
See The Daily Californian article here.
See Oakland Tribune article here.
See Jacob Sullum's commentary on Reason Online here.

The Rest of the Story

How ironic that the proposal is called "Public Commons for Everyone." For everyone but homeless smokers. After all, they have two slams against them. As if it isn't bad enough that they are discriminated against because they are homeless, now they will be additionally discriminated against by virtue of the fact that they smoke.

Apparently, a 20-foot border zone around store entrances isn't big enough to allow police to harass the homeless. They need an extra 5 feet to get fully rid of these undesirables.

One thing is clear. This isn't about health. It's about economics. The expansion of the no-smoking zone around public buildings is not being considered because it is needed to protect the health of nonsmokers; it is being proposed because it will help the city to get rid of the presence of homeless people around stores on Telegraph and Shattuck, and therefore to appease business owners and help protect profits of these stores. It's clearly about money and not health.

Apparently, there doesn't appear to be much opposition on the City Council to the expansion of the outdoor non-smoking areas. If I still lived in Berkeley, I would be vehemently opposing the proposal. I would hope that local anti-smoking groups would express their opposition; I doubt they will, however.

Sally Hindman is exactly right. If you want to get rid of the homeless, then build adequate affordable housing. Provide adequate services and social support, including substance abuse and mental health services. Harassing these individuals, criminalizing them, and changing the law specifically to take away their civil liberties is not going to solve the problem, although it may well be successful in protecting local businesses.

I worked with the homeless in Berkeley for two years, so I am quite familiar with this population and the "problem" of homeless persons hanging out on the streets in the downtown area. What I can say from my own experience is that the services for this population were hideously inadequate. Basic social services were unavailable, and there was a concerted effort on the part of the County to try to deny these people services in order to protect the County budget. To now take it out on that very population which was systematically denied services which helped to keep them without shelter and in poverty is despicable.

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