by Ariel Messman-Rucker
As cities across the country pass laws to criminalize homeless people, using a marginalized portion of the population as a scapegoat for larger social and economic problems, Berkeley residents went against the tide of repression and voted no on Measure S, a ballot measure that would have criminalized homeless persons for sitting on city sidewalks.
The victory over Measure S is especially inspiring because this is the first time anywhere in the nation since 1994 that a ballot measure to criminalize homeless people and curtail their civil liberties has been defeated.
“Usually when minority rights are put to a vote it doesn’t turn out very well,” said Bob Offer-Westort, No on S campaign coordinator. “It’s a terrible way for handling things like that. In recent years when voters have been asked to weigh in on the rights of homeless people, those elections have generally gone badly.”
The hard-fought campaign that defeated Berkeley’s proposed sitting ban is even more remarkable considering that Measure S was championed by Mayor Tom Bates and the city’s most powerful business organizations, which vastly outspent the financially strapped homeless organizations that opposed the initiative.
Though the final count of campaign contributions and expenditures is not available yet, the current accounting shows that the Yes on S campaign spent more than $115,000 while the No on S campaign only spent about $15,000, Offer-Westort said.
After nine days of ballot counting, the No on S/Stand Up for the Right to Sit Down campaign announced victory over the anti-sitting measure on November 14. When the final results were tallied, Measure S was defeated by 52.30 percent of Berkeley’s voters, a victory margin of 2,458 votes, according to the Alameda County Registrar of Voters.
“I feel pretty excited about that victory,” said Offer-Westort. “The campaign for Measure S was by far the most expensive campaign that Berkeley’s seen in a long, long time and so it’s pretty exciting to show that good grassroots organizing can beat big money.”
If the measure had passed, sitting down on the sidewalks of Berkeley’s commercial districts would have become illegal between the hours of 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week, and those found in violation would have been subject to citation, fines and even jail time.
Proponents of Measure S marketed the ordinance as a way to help local businesses and make Berkeley streets safer, but homeless advocates and service providers were certain the measure would be used as a tool to criminalize homelessness and create a legal means of driving homeless people from public view.
“Yes on S spent over $100,000 trying to get their message out to Berkeley voters, sending deceptive literature saying that Measure S will help people and save jobs when, in reality, it will do neither,” said Jesse Arreguin of the City Council.
Yes on S also tried to persuade voters that their campaign was a small-scale effort when, in fact, the majority of their funding came from big developers.
“We were drastically outspent, that’s for sure, and the bulk of their money came from real-estate and developer interests. It really showed that this was not some feel-good, grassroots, small-business measure they portrayed it to be,” said Christopher Cook, communications director for No on S who also runs Progressive Message, a communications consultancy.
Homeless advocates, service providers, religious leaders, poverty rights attorneys, activists and members of the community banded together to fight the reprehensible ballot measure using grass-root tactics.
“All of the things we achieved were only achievable because we had really good, solid volunteers making them happen on a daily basis, and that’s the core of why we won,” Offer-Westort said.
The No on S/Stand Up for the Right to Sit Down campaign visited all of the Berkeley precincts and went door to door talking to residents and businesses for months prior to the election.
“The core of our campaign was being in touch, going out and talking to people, finding out what mattered to them and having those one-on-one conversations,” Offer-Westort said. “That was really the heart of our campaign and the heart of how we won.”
Securing the endorsements of the ACLU of Northern California, the Bay Area chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, and scores of religious leaders, community organizations and local political clubs also helped the No on S campaign reach voters.
“What I feel heartened by is that we got the arguments and the facts out in front of voters with very little money, but with a lot of passion,” Cook said.
No on S was able to get the endorsements of five local Democratic clubs with the sole exception of the Berkeley Democratic Club, which endorsed Measure S and created a misleading slate card, which included their endorsement of the sitting ban, Offer-Westort said.
Despite its name, the Berkeley Democratic Club (BDC) does not officially represent the Democratic Party any more than any other local Democratic club. Yet their slate cards had “Official Democratic Party Voter Guide” printed on them.
“They’re advertising to be someone who they’re not,” Offer-Westort said. “I mean it’s extremely dishonest.”
The BDC supplied John Caner, the chief executive officer of the Downtown Berkeley Association and a major Yes on S supporter, with their duplicitous slate cards to give out to voters.
Caner then had Davida Coady of Options Recovery Services, also a key backer of the Yes on S campaign, recruit approximately 50 homeless people to hand out the misleading slate cards to voters right outside of Berkeley polling places on Election Day.
The No on S campaign spoke with some of the homeless people and were told they thought they were being hired by the Democratic Party to hand out information in support of the Obama campaign.
“So they’re handing out these slate cards, which are not of the Democratic Party, despite what they claim, and they’re pushing an anti-homeless law,” Offer-Westort said. “It’s one of the most disgusting kind of vicious things that I’ve seen in electoral politics.”
Coady refused to comment when Street Spirit contacted her at Options Recovery Services, where she is medical director.
The No on S/Stand Up for the Right to Sit Down campaign ran a campaign intent on winning at the polls, but also with the goal of talking directly to the public so they would better understand the reasons people end up living on the streets and the reasons laws that strip people of their civil liberties aren’t a solution to economic problems or homelessness.
Supporters of the No on S campaign volunteered their time to not only speak with the public, but also organized protests and creative events to get the message out to Berkeley voters.
“We knew that just standing on the moral high ground and waving at people wouldn’t work — that it had to be more than that — so we tried to educate people very specifically about who was on the streets and why,” said Carol Denney, an independent journalist and homeless activist who spent countless hours working for the No on S campaign. Denney organized events and spoke to nearly 500 Berkeley businesses about Measure S.
A lack of understanding of the multiple reasons why people become homeless is a huge impediment to finding real solutions, City Councilmember Arreguin said.
“It’s not just street youth,” Arreguin said. “It’s veterans, people who have substance abuse problems, people who have mental health issues. It’s families, and a very diverse group of people and people who are on the streets for different reasons.
“I think fundamentally the problem with Measure S is that it was put on the ballot without any real analysis of the problems, without any data, without any discussion of alternatives, but even more so, without a real fundamental understanding about who are the homeless in Berkeley.”
Although the defeat of Measure S is cause for celebration, homeless advocates and service providers now want to turn the attention of city officials to finding solutions to the real causes of homelessness and to create the housing and shelters needed in Berkeley.
“Now let’s take that energy that we had to use just tearing our hair out trying to fight this thing — let’s take that energy and do something wonderful,” said Sally Hindman, executive director of Youth Spirit Artworks, who is currently fighting to get additional funding to expand her program that helps low-income and homeless youth in Berkeley.
“We fought off something negative and that’s never optimal,” Hindman said. “I would have preferred to have had the hundreds of hours that I had to put into fighting that, and all of us had to put into it, I would have preferred that be focused right from the start on something that we knew would work. There are still 400 homeless youth on the streets and couches of Berkeley on any given night and that hasn’t changed. So let’s roll up our sleeves and get going. We’ve got work to do.”
Homeless activist Denney said that while she was disheartened that the dehumanizing ordinance even made its way to the voters, she hopes that the work done by the Stand Up for the Right to Sit Down coalition will serve as a guide and source of inspiration for those who have to fight against anti-homeless laws in other cities.
“I worry for this town and this country that this happened at all,” Denney said. “On the other hand, what I think we just did successfully as a group — the group that opposed Measure S — was create a model for other communities with similar undemocratic power bases trying to rob other people of civil rights.”
Arreguin echoed this in saying, “I think Berkeley really can be a leader and can be a model for how we can come together to develop solutions to address homelessness. The next steps are equally important as what happened with Measure S.”
Referring to the headline of Street Spirit’s story on Measure S in its November issue, “Berkeley’s Choice: Compassion or Repression,” Hindman said, “I think that the voters took up Street Spirit on their challenge of repression versus compassion. I think that compassion won out. People want to do something positive. They don’t want to do something cruel that’s going to be punitive. They brought their best selves to the polls in that regard.”