It’s a story that deserves to be on the big screen, or at least on stage. It’s a modern day Les Miserables
, but with a happier ending. At least for now. Victor Frost, a 61-year-old, Palo Alto, California panhandler who sits on a milk crate because of his poor health, won a two-year battle against police who have been citing and harassing him for sitting on a sidewalk.
Frost’s legal fight ended in a mistrial last Friday because some jurors rightly held on to the belief that he was innocent of violating the city’s sit/lie law. The city may appeal.
It could be a precursor of what might happen in San Francisco if a similar law is enacted by the Board of Supervisors or passed by voters in November. It certainly exposes the downright meanness of such statutes that punish people for being poor or homeless.
Like San Francisco’s proposed sit/lie, the ordinance in Palo Alto (passed in 1997) makes it illegal to sit or lie on a sidewalk within 50 feet of a business. The original statute only applied to University Avenue, but in 2007, it was revised to include the area around Whole Foods, the health food chain whose CEO believes that America shouldn’t have universal healthcare.
Frost, who suffers from congestive heart failure, cannot stand for long periods of time. So he sits on his crate across from Whole Foods where he finds that he can raise enough money to live on. He was the first person cited under the revised law, though he maintained that his spot is 67 feet away from the entrance to the privately owned health food store. A lunch hour visit to the spot by attorneys in the case yielded a reading of between 53 and 60 feet.
Frost is not homeless. He lives in subsidized housing, but needs to beg on the street in order to survive.
The sit/lie law that police were enforcing when they repeatedly cited Frost has an exemption for medical emergencies, yet officers who were aware of this, such as Sgt. Natasha Powers, still wrote him up for sitting on his box. Powers testified during the trial that video of Frost was also shot from her patrol car. Wonder how many real crimes were being committed while she harassed panhandlers?
Frost’s attorney Mark Dames said that his client’s milk crate was as much a device for the disabled as a wheelchair. Frost is on eight different medicines for his heart troubles. “Every day of Victor’s life is a medical emergency,” said Dames.
“The city of Palo Alto and Whole Foods Market need to just let it go,” he added. It’s true.
Adding it all together--police time, the city attorney’s salary, court costs and other expenses involved with this case--I wonder how much the city has spent to keep one poor disabled man from sitting on a milk crate on the sidewalk?
Palo Alto should be ashamed of itself.
Tommi Avicolli Mecca is co-editor of Avanti Popolo: Italians Sailing Beyond Columbus, and editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State: The Early Years of Gay Liberation, which has been nominated for both an American Library Association and a Lambda Literary award. His website is www.avicollimecca.com.