Oceanside loiter law is criticized
City’s proposed ban on sitting and lying on sidewalks would target homeless, critics say.
Anyone in Oceanside sitting or lying on a downtown public sidewalk during business hours could be cited under a proposed ordinance that some people say targets the homeless.
Several cities across the state have adopted similar ordinances in recent years, drawing criticism from homeless rights advocates who say the laws discriminate against transients and the poor.
“We should all be a little nervous when sitting in a public space is deemed a crime,” said Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project in San Francisco. “Local governments are passing laws they know will be enforced discriminately. If it was enforced against everyone, it would be off the books in a heartbeat.”
The Oceanside ordinance doesn’t mention the homeless. Authorities say it’s aimed only at keeping sidewalks clear for pedestrians.
“It’s all about safety,” police Sgt. Kendrick Sadler said last week. “We’re not looking to ticket people .... It’s just a tool to keep people moving along.”
People sitting or lying on the sidewalks are a tripping hazard, Sadler said.
Also, distracted pedestrians trying to avoid someone on the sidewalk are more likely to step into traffic or walk into an obstacle such as a fire hydrant, a street sign, a tree or another person.
Oceanside has one of San Diego County’s largest homeless populations. The annual countywide one-day homeless count taken by volunteers in January showed the city had 531 people without shelter, the largest number anywhere in the county except downtown San Diego.
Transients often sit or sleep on Oceanside sidewalks, especially in the blocks near the pier between Coast Highway and the Strand.
Compounding the problem in recent years are a number of new multistory buildings with condominiums on the upper floors and shops at street level.
That type of mixed-use development is bringing many more people downtown.
Like other San Diego County coastal communities, Oceanside is also making changes that encourage people to park and walk to their shopping and entertainment destinations, instead of driving as close as possible to every location they visit.
That means more people living and shopping downtown are sharing the sidewalks with the region’s transients.
“We get complaints from business owners” about people sitting or sleeping where they block a sidewalk or an entrance, Sadler said.
“Right now we don’t have anything on the books, as far as ordinances that prevent it,” Sadler said. People can be ticketed if they are “purposely” or intentionally are trying to block someone’s path, but not if they just decide to sit down on a public sidewalk.
People sitting on the street are a common sight outside G.I. Joe’s Surplus, a military supply store on Pier View Way.
“It becomes a hassle,” said store manager Michael Cerda. “It’s not appealing to the tourists when you have these kinds of people hanging around.”
Transients often congregate around the utility boxes on the street, he said. Sometimes they’re loud and boisterous, which can frighten tourists or anyone unfamiliar with the area.
Usually, when the police come, the transients just move to another spot nearby.
“I don’t know a solution for that,” Cerda said, with a shrug of his shoulders.
One solution proposed by Boden, the homeless advocate, would be for cities to provide more money and incentives for developers to build affordable housing.
“Give people an alternative to sleeping in the streets,” he said. “That would take us a long way toward government not feeling like they need these laws.”
The proposed ordinance, which the city’s Police and Fire Commission approved July 20, could go to the City Council for approval later this year.
It covers all public sidewalks west of Interstate 5 to the beach, and south of the Camp Pendleton border to Vista Way.
San Francisco voters approved a “sit/lie” ordinance in 2015 to ban sitting or lying on sidewalks from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
It requires police to issue a warning to first-time offenders, but repeated violations could lead to fines or jail time.
Chico, Redding and Monterey also have approved similar laws in the last five years.
OCEANSIDE police talk to two people sitting on Pier View Way last week. The city is considering an ordinance under which people sitting or lying on a downtown public sidewalk during business hours could be cited.