An ordinance barring people from sitting or lying on sidewalks in commercial districts of Monterey, California, took effect Wednesday, reflecting a growing trend in cities across the country and raising concerns about its implication for homeless people.
“The intent is to address the concerns of business owners,” said Monterey City Council member Alan Haffa. “The presence of homeless people on the streets makes other people not want to shop there.”
According to Haffa, Monterey County has approximately 2,500 identified homeless people, but only beds for about 20 percent of them. In Monterey city, the situation is direr — with 580 homeless people, but only beds for 31.
The new ordinance targets areas densely populated by homeless people, covering nearly 60 to 70 percent of the city, excluding beaches and parks, he said, without making alternate living arrangements for displaced homeless people.
First-time offenders of the new law will receive a verbal warning and order to vacate the premises, Chief of Police Philip J. Penko told Al Jazeera. Additional offenses will be met with a citation that carries a $100 fine. If the penalty is not paid, offenders can be arrested, he added.
“I think it makes no sense to be charging people a fine everyone knows they’ll be unable to pay,” said Jeremy Rosen, director of advocacy at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), adding that it would just create a cycle where people go in and out of jail and end up right back on the street.
Cities adopting similar “sit/lie” laws have increased in recent years, according to a 2014 report published by the NLCHP. The report, based on a survey of 187 cities across the country, found a 43 percent increase in such laws from 2011 to 2014.
According to the report, other cities that criminalize activities like sitting down or lying in public, sleeping in vehicles or begging in public, include Orlando, Florida; Santa Cruz, California; Manchester, New Hampshire; Virginia Beach, Virginia; and Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“The ordinance was passed by the Monterey City Council after receiving numerous complaints from residents, visitors and the business community regarding a reduction in safety in our downtown,” Chief Penko said. “Complaints included concerns over sidewalks being obstructed by people sitting or lying down.”
Penko insisted that the ordinance is based on behavior and not the socioeconomic status of a person.
But Rosen said that public safety concerns were just a “pretext” for Monterey passing a law to harass and possibly even criminalize poor people who have nowhere else to go. He said the alternative approach would be to understand why people are homeless and provide them with housing and other services that could help them back up on their feet.
“There is a non-violent war going on between economic development tourism and homeless people and the agencies that serve them,” said Michael Stoops, director of community organizing at the National Coalition for the Homeless, a network of activists and advocates working to address the issue of homelessness.
He said the purpose of such laws is to get rid of visible homelessness, and not to help resolve the issue.