To the Editor:
This is in response to two recent letters to the editor and to the Chamber of Commerce article which focused on problems related to the homeless/nomadic population in our community.
Some valid complaints about inconsiderate and disrespectful behavior by some apparently transient or homeless people on our sidewalks and in our community have been expressed. Sometimes people stand around and take up the whole sidewalk or block doorways, and trash is sometimes left on sidewalks or is strewn around in campsites. Sometimes people have felt threatened by words or behavior.
However, there is no validity in using the behavior of a few as an excuse to demonize, denigrate, and generally paint a whole population of people with a broad derogatory brush as some have a tendency to do. And it is of particular concern that the language of confrontation like “take off the gloves” and “take back our streets,” as mentioned in one letter, makes its way into the dialogue.
This derogatory attitude can lead to unfairness, injustice and in some cases, tragedy as can be seen internationally, nationally and locally. It was not so long ago that a homeless person was beaten to death where he lay down on the Redway Post Office freight dock. Problems need to be addressed without feeding into this kind of tragic action.
The nomadic influx present in our community is a phenomenon occurring up and down the North Coast and throughout the country caused in part by both the terrible national economic conditions, and the continuing and attractive strength of the marijuana economy locally. It is important to address any specific problems arising from this in our communities in a way that does not blame any one person or group for the acts of others. Respect is key in any civil interaction.
There are Constitutional issues involved when we are talking about controlling what goes on in our towns. “Our” streets and sidewalks, like streets and sidewalks across the country, are public commons and all people have a right to be there. We have to remind our Chamber of Commerce that even loitering and panhandling are legal when done respectfully. The Civil Liberties Monitoring Project has researched this subject in an effort to help find appropriate solutions to perceived problems. CLMP has come up with the following guidelines and printed them, locally as a handout and also available in our office.
Respect liberty and justice for all.
Some guidelines for the public use of public spaces in Southern Humboldt.
Rights and responsibilities
Town sidewalks and streets are known as the commons, the public spaces to be used respectfully for everyday life. The U.S. Constitution and local laws are the legal framework behind understanding our rights in the commons. These laws are subject to interpretation. The local business community takes a special interest in common areas, how the connecting spaces look, feel and function. They meet together and with local law enforcement to insure that laws are enforced in a manner that protects the township from negative effects of public use.
The public is asked to use common sense and to be considerate and respectful of others, in both public and private spaces.
1. Loitering that does not block sidewalks, entrances or exits is allowed on public property. Simply “hanging out” is not a crime. Lacking any illegal activity, a citizen cannot be made to leave a public area.
2. Panhandling has been found in courts to be a First Amendment right in public spaces. In private spaces any ban on solicitation must be applied equally to all. The right to panhandle does not confer the right to pester or harass people by asking more than once.
3. Each citizen (local or traveler) is responsible for his/her (and pets) impact on the environment of the commons and clean up any trash made (cigarette butts, etc.).
4. A business person has a responsibility regarding the public space around his/her business. A citizen should respect these responsibilities.
5. A business owner has a right to protect employees and customers from harassment. However, enforcement of laws regarding this or any other law enforcement concern is to be performed by law enforcement officers. If a restraining order is in effect by a business person, that order is limited to the property of that business.
I hope these guidelines will help to keep this dialogue (that must be continued) on a level that is compassionate, respectful and considerate to all sides.
Michael de Leon
On behalf of the Civil Liberties Monitoring Project