The Saratoga Springs City Council has watered down the controversial law that prohibits people from making themselves tripping hazards on downtown sidewalks.
The council voted 4-1 this week to amend the law it adopted in June by reducing the fines and spelling out that people must be “obstructing” the sidewalk to risk arrest.
The new version also explicitly spells out that people can sit or lie down on the outer edges of the sidewalk — the areas where a different law allows street performers to do their thing.
The sidewalk law has been a flashpoint since it first came up for discussion. Lots of people who aren’t homeless — including representatives of the New York Civil Liberties Union — think it targets the city’s visible homeless population. A way of rousting vagrants, in other words.
That could be right, but Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen, who proposed the law and sought the recent changes, emphatically denies that. Three of the City Council’s four other members agreed with him.
“I do think it’s about public safety, and the insistence it’s about something else, it just isn’t there,” Mathiesen said at Tuesday’s meeting.
The council member bucking the trend was Mayor Joanne Yepsen. She voted against the entire law in June and also against the new version on Tuesday.
“I just don’t like the law,” said Yepsen, who has been the council’s most public advocate for the interests of the homeless, of whom there are perhaps three dozen in the city.
“I just don’t see the need for it as much as others think, and I don’t think it’s enforceable,” the mayor said.
I’ve seen people stretched out on a Broadway sidewalk and looking significantly less than alert, a potential tripping hazard, especially if you’re looking at your phone rather than watching where you’re going. (Yes, your honor, I’m guilty.)
But I have to admit I haven’t encountered any lately.
So, maybe the law is working as intended, or perhaps the expansion of programs run by organizations like Shelters of Saratoga to get people off the streets is having an effect.
So far, there have been threats of lawsuits over the law, but none have been filed.
The NYCLU can’t sue the city unless it is representing someone who has been arrested under the law; so far, police aren’t making arrests. As far as I know, nobody has even been given the initial warning the law requires before an arrest. Police Chief Greg Veitch has made clear he thinks there are better ways to deal with the homeless.
Mathiesen said similar laws have passed constitutional muster in other communities, so he believes Saratoga’s would, too, if it came to that.
Some think city officials just want to keep Saratoga’s tourist-town image clean. One night last winter police arrested a half-dozen homeless men — but all were charged with trespassing, an actual crime, kinda. They were on stoops and other private property.
The ordinance adopted in June set a fine of up to $100 for a first offense and made repeated violations a misdemeanor with larger fines and a potential jail sentence.
“This first set of punishments, I understand where they came from, but they were over the top,” Mathiesen said.
Under the revisions, the fine is dropped to no more than $50, and it drops misdemeanor treatment for repeat offenses.
Public Works Commissioner Skip Scirroco insisted the homeless weren’t the target of the law, but he also argued that police intervention can be an act of compassion.
“I think people in authority need the tools to move the person to an area where it’s not only safe for the pedestrian but also safe for the person,” he said.
Nothing says you can’t sit or sleep on a bench — of which downtown has plenty. And some people thought the original laws forbade sleeping on benches.
The NYCLU has called laws like Saratoga’s sidewalk ordinance a “Band-Aid approach” for cities that have failed to address their homelessness problems.
But no community really fixes the problem. People are unique and fragile, and laws are a bludgeon designed to pound square pegs into round holes.
People sleeping outdoors with all their belongings nearby are found in every major American city. I don’t see that changing.
With automated machines replacing more and more manufacturing jobs all the time — not the fault of the Chinese at all — Albany economist Hugh Johnson has called for government to adopt “very humane policies” toward the under- and unemployed.
But at this moment in our history, Johnson, one of the smartest economists out there, seems like a lone voice in the wilderness. In my humble opinion, that is.
Stephen Williams is a Gazette reporter. Opinions expressed are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. He can be reached at 395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.