NY Times: Debating whether it’s a crime to rest on San Francisco’s sidewalks
SAN FRANCISCO — Starchild, a self-described sex worker and a candidate for San Francisco supervisor, says there is absolutely no reason that his beloved city needs any more rules.
“I think that with a lot of laws, half of it is leftover morality from the Puritan days,” said Starchild, a male escort who goes by only one name and declines to give his age. “And it could be your freedom that goes next.”
Starchild is one of a handful of working men and women fighting a proposed city law that would make it illegal to sit or lie on public sidewalks in San Francisco for most of the day. Backed by the city’s Police Department and Mayor Gavin Newsom, the “sit-lie” law is being hailed by supporters as a weapon to combat aggressive behavior by the city’s myriad sidewalk dwellers.
But advocates of the homeless and some sex workers see it as a direct attack on the city’s weakest, as well as on the city’s own image as a tolerant refuge for live and let live.
Advocates for men and women of the night like Starchild say the proposed law has the potential to make their difficult lives — what with the fear of arrest, disease and occasionally dangerous clients — even more arduous.
“The work that they do is just like any other job, except it’s criminalized,” said Rachel West, a spokeswoman for the US Prostitutes Collective, a network of sex workers based in San Francisco that staged a small protest over the sit-lie law on Thursday afternoon. “So when you go to work, you’re facing getting arrested, which makes the work much harder. And sit-lie will make that worse.”
In a city known for its open attitudes toward sex, it is hardly surprising that sex workers would be this public or involved in a political campaign. In 2008, a measure to decriminalize prostitution received nearly 41 percent of the vote, but ultimately failed.
Still, sex workers are hardly the only group upset about the sit-lie law. Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said that laws such as the one proposed in San Francisco, which would prohibit sitting or lying on sidewalks from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., “causes noncriminals to be conducting criminal behavior.”
“It is extremely hard to stay moving your whole waking day,” he said. “I would challenge any individual to do that for one day and feel how exhausting it is.”
Tony Winnicker, a spokesman for Mr. Newsom, a Democrat who is running for lieutenant governor, said the law was not meant to target any specific group, but to protect residents from harassment in neighborhoods like the Haight-Ashbury, the hippie-friendly enclave where groups of youths still congregate to drink, panhandle and smoke marijuana.
“It’s about unacceptable behavior,” Mr. Winnicker said, “and giving police another tool to deal with it.”
The city’s Board of Supervisors has been slow to enact any sit-lie law, which Mr. Newsom proposed in March. A public safety committee is expected to take up the issue on Monday, but Mr. Newsom has also hinted that he may put the issue to a vote by the public if the board fails to pass it.
For his part, Starchild — blond and buff — said that he was not concerned about being arrested himself, but that he worries for his co-workers. “I don’t look like the category of people they’re going after,” he said. “But I wouldn’t be surprised that sex workers working on the street get caught up in this.”