The Monterey City Council voted last night to discourage older people or the disabled from shopping downtown.
That was not the intent of the 4-1 vote, of course, but the unintended consequence certainly could be elimination of any places for shoppers or other “regular people” to sit.
In an effort to keep unsightly homeless people away from stores and to prevent panhandling in places where there are people available to be panhandled, the council enacted a ban on sleeping or reclining in commercial districts. While it is true that those are places where it is common for people of all ages to sit and panhandle or sit and play guitars, etc., it is also common there for husbands to sit and wait outside while wives shop for dresses and where wives wait while husbands shop for ties.
Councilman Alan Haffa was the dissenter, arguing that banning sitting in public could be unconstitutional and clearly is unfair.
The ordinance was presented by Police Chief Phil Penko, though that does not necessarily mean it was his idea. He said it is aimed at “travelers,” drifters who pass through town looking for handouts and sometimes blocking the paths of other people. Hoping to make the new law fit into a constitutional framework, Penko said it targets behavior, not the homeless.
Other cities have struggled with the same issue for years and years. Santa Cruz, with much more of a youth culture than Monterey, attracts relatively large groups of bedraggled youth in search of community and spare change. To address that, it has wrestled with various ordinances, bans and law enforcement campaigns, at significant legal costs and less significant results.
Many at Tueday’s meeting agreed in passing that downtown could use more benches, even though it was obvious that that would never happen. How can a transient be ticketed for sitting over here while a couple of shoppers are watching from over there? Nonetheless, the council majority also agreed to pursue additional benches. How the city can travel both paths remains to be seen.
Penko said the ordinance “targets behavior,” but the way it’s written it targets the wrong thing. A wiser approach, in my humble opinion, would be to truly target bad behavior by banning aggressive panhandling and prohibiting people from blocking sidewalks or store entrances. That would do much more to help create a downtown that attracts large numbers of people to shop, eat and, when tired, sit.