Call it the miracle on Pacific Avenue — witnessed firsthand.
In downtown Santa Cruz, a young man and woman approached Denise Miller, the cheery uniformed “safety ambassador” of downtown.
The young man said: “We just found a hundred dollars on the sidewalk. Can we give it to you?”
Miller accepted the bills, five neatly folded 20s, and asked for a phone number. If no one claimed the money in 30 days, the couple could have it.
“That would be great,” the young woman said as they walked away. “We could really use a hundred bucks.”
The moment felt like a journey back to Mayberry. Who turns in found money these days? But only to note two remarkably honest people would be partly missing the point; Miller’s trusted presence also provides a lesson.
Welcome to the sidewalks of Santa Cruz, the city often cited as an example San Francisco should follow in dealing with vagrancy, aggressive panhandling and other street crimes.
Mike Rotkin, the Santa Cruz mayor, appeared at a March 1 public hearing in San Francisco to speak in favor of a “sit-lie” ordinance to prevent loitering on sidewalks, one that critics have said unfairly singles out the homeless. San Franciscans will vote on the measure, Proposition L, on Nov. 2.
If the enforcement of similar ordinances in Santa Cruz is a model for San Francisco to follow, there is much to admire. On a recent visit during the busy summer tourist season there were no sightings of the young street punk gangs that have bedeviled places like Haight Street.
The problem is this: San Francisco has no intention of actually following the Santa Cruz model.
The success in Santa Cruz — which even proponents admit is imperfect — has required an ongoing, Herculean effort by the city, local merchants and ordinary citizens.
Ryan Coonerty, a local businessman and the city’s vice mayor, said, “We literally work block by block through problems.”
Coonerty said downtown merchants paid a total of $138,000 a year to employ three full- and part-time street ambassadors who walk downtown (unarmed and with no power to issue citations) in bright blue and yellow uniforms lettered “Hospitality.”
“We’re like a visitors center, but mobile,” Miller said.
But she also points out to people when they are violating ordinances against smoking, noise, sidewalk encampments, and lying or sitting on the pavement (different from San Francisco’s proposed citywide ban, sidewalk sitting is prevented only in some areas, not the whole city.)
“People behave themselves,” Miller said, noting that she has up to 1,400 street interactions a month and, “99 percent are gracious.”
Government-paid social workers are also on site. The police are called only when problems escalate.
Conversely, the proposed San Francisco ordinance relies almost entirely on police enforcement. There is a reference to providing social services, but no budget in the proposition for such care. In a letter dated Aug. 9, Ben Rosenfield, the city controller, wrote of Proposition L, “Should the proposed ordinance be approved by the voters, in my opinion, it would not affect the cost of government.”
Merchants in the Haight, where the sit-lie movement has its roots, have no plan to take on expenses like those that Santa Cruz businesses have paid. At a meeting last week of the Haight Ashbury Improvement Association, a group of merchants and residents, some members balked at additional spending on resources for the street, Ted Loewenberg, the association’s president, said.
Loewenberg said the group discussed the establishment of a Community Benefits District, similar to those in other San Francisco neighborhoods. In such areas, property owners pay an additional fee to finance social workers, community guides and cleaning services.
In the Castro neighborhood, for example, those additional benefits cost $402,000 a year, split among 275 property owners. That averages to about $4 a day per property owner, but some Haight merchants seem unable to embrace the idea that the type of change they crave will cost money.
“The spirit is there,” said Loewenberg, but not the commitment to spending.
Even with its efforts, Santa Cruz still has crime. A series of anomalous murders in the past year — two that have been tentatively linked to gangs — have rattled residents and inspired the formation of several citizen crime-watch groups. Some residents feel the need to be personally vigilant.
“I have made five citizen arrests in the past year,” Vice Mayor Coonerty said.
At Peet’s Coffee on Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz, Edward Martinez III, a longtime resident, talked about the challenges his city had faced and had a message for those in San Francisco who believe that just passing Proposition L will be enough.
“People want a magic pill to fix things,” Martinez said. “It doesn’t exist. It never did.”
This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.