Protesting a new ordinance that outlaws sitting or lying on the sidewalk, dozens of Saratogians took to Broadway and planted themselves on the steps of City Hall and the surrounding sidewalk.
According to the ordinance, passed Tuesday, a person sitting or lying on the sidewalk would be issued a warning, and, if they refused to move, could be slapped with a violation and a $50-$100 fine. Second and third offenses, depending on how many days had passed since a prior offense, could result in a misdemeanor charge, $500 fine, and up to 30 days in jail.
Randall “Chalk Boy” Deschamps remembers hearing about the ordinance a few hours before it was to be voted on by the City Council.
“I was totally blown away,” said Deschamps, who attended the meeting June 7 to voice his opposition, but said the decision seemed to have already been made. “I think it was pretty obvious they already had their minds made up before the meeting.”
The measure was passed 4-1, with Saratoga Springs Mayor Joanne Yepsen dissenting. Yepsen could not be reached for comment Saturday.
The ordinance, which city officials have said was designed with public safety in mind and meant to prevent people from obstructing foot traffic on the sidewalks, was widely criticized by residents who say it purposefully targets the homeless.
Deschamps remembers being thrown out on the streets of Saratoga as a boy.
“I was an 8-year-old throwaway,” said Deschamps, 58, “back when it was legal to get thrown out on the streets. Now it’s not, thank God.”
Now, 50 years later, he’s sporting long, whitish-gray dreadlocks, hands coated in a layer of chalk dust, no longer homeless but scribbling a message in support of the homeless on the sidewalk in front of City Hall.
“Sitting is not a crime,” he wrote.
Deschamps said Saratogians should take photos and videos any time they see the law being enforced and put their footage online. He said residents should also call City Council members and voice their opposition to the ordinance any chance they get.
“Eventually the council will get tired of hearing about it,” Deschamps said.
Saratoga resident Cathie Commerford said the homeless should not be punished.
“We need to do something about our homeless, not make new laws against them,” said Commerford. “We are a tourist town and we need solutions, but this isn’t it.”
Saratoga resident Nichole Baldwin said there’s no getting around the fact that city councilmembers were targeting the homeless.
“I think that the law they made this week needs to be challenged,” said Baldwin. “I think it targets homeless people and makes life harder for them.”
“They sometimes ask for money but I’ve never been bothered by them,” said Baldwin of panhandlers.
“I’ve had more of a problem with drunken tourists,” said Baldwin’s friend Dana Denison, who brought her 2-year-old daughter Samara to the protest.
Baldwin said Saratoga needs more funding for shelters and Denison said the homeless could use more psychiatric care.
“Fining them doesn’t make sense,” Denison said.
Saratogians Tammy D’Ercole and Mary Mahoney also came out against the measure, and could be seen Saturday evening sitting with signs in front of City Hall criticizing the ordinance.
D’Ercole said she’s lived in Saratoga her whole life and doesn’t see the homeless as a problem.
“It’s shameful for this town to ignore the homeless problem and then punish them,” said D’Ercole.
The “root problem,” she said, is addiction and mental illness.
“We need to not hide them away … getting them services is the solution,” D’Ercole said.
Mahoney said Saratoga has a lot to be proud of in terms of helping the homeless, touting a program called Code Blue that gets homeless off the streets in freezing temperatures, but thinks this ordinance is regressive.
“I see it as an imposition against civil rights,” she said.
Mahoney said the community is staging another protest on Friday, June 17, at 6 p.m. in front of Lillian’s Restaurant along the heart of Broadway.
Some in the crowd, which at one point swelled to about 70 people, sang songs and played ukuleles and guitars while others held protest signs. Most talked in small groups and fielded questions from a half-dozen reporters.
One protester, who gave his name only as Craig, was asked if he was prepared to get arrested if police ordered the crowd to disperse. “I guess,” he said. “I don’t have anything going on tomorrow.”
But it wouldn’t likely come to that. Police Chief Gregory Veitch, standing on the other side of Broadway in front of City Hall, surveyed the amiable gathering and didn’t seem worried about crowd control.
“They’re being peaceful and we don’t anticipate making any arrests tonight in connection with the protest,” Veitch said. He indicated that enforcing the new measure was not a huge priority for the department, but noted that “the law is the law.”
“I would not anticipate that the Police Department will aggressively enforce the ordinance that was just passed,” said Veitch. “We’ll definitely be using our discretion.”