Proponents of San Francisco’s controversial sit-lie ordinance say the law is already deterring aggressive panhandlers in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, even though police haven’t started enforcing it.
The Civil Sidewalks law went into effect Dec. 17 but won’t be enforced until mid-February, when the department completes its training and community outreach, police said. The law makes it illegal to sit or lie on a public sidewalk in The City between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m.
Ted Loewenberg, president of the Haight Ashbury Improvement Association, said the ordinance, approved by voters last November as Proposition L, had an immediate effect on Haight Street.
“The purpose of it isn’t to criminalize the homeless, but to get people to behave better on Haight Street,” he said. “We’re already seeing that. There have been very few people lingering on the sidewalk since the election.”
Several Haight Street merchants agreed that they have already seen a difference.
“It really emptied out, just by virtue of people hearing that it passed,” said Bruce Smith, owner of Roberts Hardware at 1629 Haight St.
Tommy Giang, a clerk at Stussy Clothing on Haight Street near Masonic Avenue, said he has also seen a decrease in the number of transients hanging out on the sidewalks.
“I didn’t think they’d take it very seriously, but they’ve complied really well,” he said.
Once the law is enforced in mid-February, first-time violators will receive verbal warnings and second offenders will be cited and fined between $50 and $100. After that, the penalties escalate sharply and could eventually lead to jail time.
Yet police spokesman Lt. Troy Dangerfield said the intent of the law isn’t to throw homeless people in jail, but to deter aggressive panhandlers from harassing pedestrians. He said police are being trained to use judgment when applying the law.
“Discretion will be a big part of this,” he said. “This is not something officers are going to be out specifically looking for.”
Coalition on Homelessness organizer Bob Offer-Westort agreed that a widespread crackdown is unlikely. He suspected The City wants to avoid having its law challenged in court.
“We will definitely see enforcement because of political pressure in the first year,” he said. “But it will eventually become a low-level harassment tool, like jaywalking.”
For all the signs of change, there are still a few transients who haven’t been scared away by the specter of Prop. L.
Lonnie Pierce, who frequents the corner of Haight and Ashbury, said he intends to remain on the sidewalk until police haul him away.
"I’ve been to jail plenty of times,” he said. “There’s not much left that they can do to me.”