No lying

Council set to discuss controversial sit/lie law

A man and his dog napping in front of the Chico City Council chambers.

A man and his dog napping in front of the Chico City Council chambers.

Photo By tom gascoyne

A controversial method designed to rid downtown areas of homeless transients who sit on sidewalks or sleep in the doorways of businesses will be debated at the Chico City Council meeting May 7.

The method usually takes the form of what are called “sit/lie”—aka “move on”—ordinances. Such ordinances, which outlaw sitting or lying on public sidewalks, have been passed in several California cities, including San Francisco and Berkeley.

Chico Police Chief Kirk Trostle suggested the idea of looking into a sit/lie ordinance at a March 26 special City Council workshop addressing homelessness. He suggested that in certain circumstances it could be a good tool for the police to have.

After some discussion, the council tasked City Attorney Lori Barker with researching the issue. The council will hear and discuss her report at the May 7 meeting.

“Sit/lie” is just one of many suggestions proposed for discussion as part of the new Clean & Safe Chico program to address problems of safety and cleanliness in Chico. Clean & Safe Chico is an ad-hoc committee, only a few months old, made up of groups like the Downtown Chico Business Association, the Chico Chamber of Commerce, the Jesus Center and the Chico Police Department.

The group promotes programs such as a “generosity campaign,” which encourages citizens to give to service agencies instead of directly to panhandlers, and “Street Pastors,” in which local religious leaders educate and give emotional support to the homeless at night. There is also a “Downtown Ambassadors” program, in which volunteers offer information and help to the downtown transients.

City Councilman Sean Morgan said he favors a sit/lie law.

“When people on the street, whether homeless or not, show anti-social, harassing behavior, that violates the rights of others, and I’m not all right with that,” Morgan said.

Morgan said he would like the ordinance also to address rowdy acts like “sticking your feet out on a public sidewalk and bothering people with an unruly dog.

“If my 14-year-old son is downtown and someone hassles him, I want something done.”

Morgan said the ordinance would not punish people for sitting on benches like those in the City Plaza.

Some local leaders are dead set against a sit/lie ordinance, calling it an unfair targeting of the homeless.

“I’m not in support of sit/lie at this time because I feel it subrogates civil liberties like the freedom to congregate in a public place,” said Councilman Randall Stone. “The majority of the council is against it, so why are we looking into something we have no intention of passing?”

Councilwoman Tami Ritter is also opposed to sit/lie, and said she would like to see a focus on disruptive behavior instead of vagrancy.

“We already have other ordinances that are not being enforced, such as disallowing bedrolls, loitering or camping,” she said. “Why not use the ordinance we already have against harassment instead of sit/lie?”

One person vehemently opposed to sit/lie is homeless advocate and blogger Bill Mash, who once brought attention to homelessness by walking from Sacramento to Chico.

Jesus Center Director Bill Such said he fears the law is so controversial that it would threaten to pit one faction of Chico against another.

“A measure such as a ‘sit/lie’ ordinance is too problematic to be useful,” he said in an email message. “It can easily divide the community, which is not something we want.”

Such suggested the ordinance could diminish the efforts by Clean & Safe Chico, such as the “Street Pastors” and the “Downtown Ambassadors”.

Councilman Stone agrees with Such and Ritter in wanting to give the new programs a chance to work.

“Sit/lie is the nuclear option,” he said. “We’ve just begun the Clean & Safe program, so the last thing we want to do is effectuate the nuclear option.”