Homeless man's sit-down protest irritates mayor

Protest against homeless policy exposes hole in city law.

July 19, 2011 

John Martin was camped out in front of City Hall July 15, 2011, but since then has moved across the street. Martin is protesting Mayor Dan Sullivan's policy of clearing homeless camps in Anchorage.

BOB HALLINEN / ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS Buy Photo

Mayor Dan Sullivan, prompted by a homeless man's sit-down protest downtown, wants a law that would make it illegal to sit or recline on city center sidewalks, with some exceptions.

The proposal is up for public hearing before the Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday.

The idea of a new law came up, said city attorney Dennis Wheeler, because the administration wanted to remove John Martin. Martin hung out with his blanket on the City Hall sidewalk for days and nights in late June. He is now set up on the sidewalk kitty-corner from City Hall at Sixth Avenue and G Street.

Martin said Tuesday that he is protesting the mayor's treatment of homeless people -- particularly, the city's decision to take and destroy some homeless people's possessions during the course of clearing out illegal camps on public property around town.

"We got calls and complaints about this guy sitting and camping on the sidewalk," said Wheeler. "So we looked at our code and we didn't have anything that specifically addressed sleeping or sitting on the sidewalk," Wheeler said.

The city was able to get a judge to rule that Martin had violated a prior court order that he not camp on municipal property, and to order him off the City Hall block, said Wheeler.

But that didn't take care of the larger issue -- no law against sitting or lying on a sidewalk, said Wheeler.

"The main point of it is we don't want a situation where people are blocking the free flow of pedestrians on sidewalks," said Wheeler. "We don't want that in turn to lead to aggressive panhandling."

Under the proposed law, the ban on sitting or reclining would not apply in several circumstances, including if the person was having a medical emergency; attending a permitted parade, rally, demonstration or other event; or grown weary waiting for a bus in a passenger loading area.

Several Anchorage Assembly members say they have questions or concerns about the proposed law.

Patrick Flynn, who represents downtown, questioned whether the law was just about the one guy staging his protest near City Hall.

"Typically laws of general application aren't written for a single circumstance," Flynn said.

"I just want to know who's paying for it," said Assemblyman Dick Traini.

"Frankly we've gone all these years without needing that specific ordinance," said Assemblyman Paul Honeman. "Why now?"

Honeman has put the issue on the agenda of an Assembly Public Safety Committee meeting at noon Thursday at city offices on Elmore Road, and the Assembly has scheduled a work session on it at 12:30 p.m. Friday in City Hall.

Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Alaska, said the ACLU is reviewing the proposal. The city has a responsibility to make sure streets and sidewalks are safe, but must also protect First Amendment rights of people to do things like protests and street performances, he said.

Chris Schutte, who directs the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, said the ordinance sounds like a good idea.

Downtown Partnership staffers get people up and moving downtown by talking with them, Schutte said. That works most of the time.

But the ordinance would be useful for police when people are unwilling to move, he said. The proposed ordinance carries a maximum fine of $100 and would only be in effect from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Schutte said he saw a visitor who was reading a map and walking on the sidewalk trip over Martin when Martin was lying on the sidewalk. "It's a potential risk to public safety to have blankets and things sitting on the sidewalk."

The no-sitting-on-the-sidewalk ordinance is one of several steps Sullivan has taken since he became mayor to manage the homeless population and crack down on panhandling.

In May, Sullivan relaunched an old campaign to urge people not to give money to panhandlers, particularly drivers handing money to panhandlers on roadways.

This summer, under a revised city law, the city has also been clearing out illegal homeless camps in woods around town.


Reach Rosemary Shinohara at rshinohara@adn.com or 257-4340.

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