I spent a surprisingly emotional two hours last night at the truth commission on the sit-lie ordinance, held at Sisters of the Road cafe on NW 6th and Everett. I say "surprisingly emotional," because while I've been outraged by the ordinance since before it began enforcement last August, I didn't realize how hurt I was by it, how hurtful the very idea is to a city's emotional well being.
55 people showed up to give testimony on their experiences of the ordinance, and Sisters was kind enough to provide beef stew, tomato soup, and bread for people who wanted it. There's always a special atmosphere in the cafe...but last night, it seemed to take on the raw trust of group therapy, or perhaps an AA meeting. And, as also happens at such groups, people were able to share the most difficult and powerful of emotions: Their shame.
"I saw my son downtown this morning," said Barry, an HIV positive father of four who had stopped by the cafe because he was hungry, and simply stumbled across the commission meeting. "And I was ashamed because I had holes in my pants. And I'm ashamed, because I don't want my son to grow up like me."
Barry began crying during his testimony, and I saw Sisters' community organizer Patrick Nolen reach out and take hold of his hand to give him strength, which, frankly, just bust my heart right to pieces, because Nolen is this big bear of a guy and he wrestled in college, but there was such empathy and compassion in the gesture, and all of a sudden I understood: Nolen is going to win.
It was Nolen's idea to hold the truth commission yesterday, after Sisters withdrew from the mayor's Street Access For Everyone committee back in May, describing the Sit/Lie ordinance as "morally abhorrent." Nolen, I feel, understands that we, the citizens of Portland, are shaming people like Barry with this sit/lie ordinance. And he knows how that feels, because he was homeless himself for eight years.
But here's the difference: Nolen realizes that homeless people's shame is, in fact, our shame as citizens of the city of Portland. And he'll take your judgment and your hatred, and throw it back to you as love. Nobody can win against a man like that, because you know what? A man like that is simply, and always, right.
"Portland is a very exemplary city for a lot of things," Barry continued. "But not for homeless people right now. We need to help them, not say oh, because you're homeless, you're a piece of shit. You're a piece of garbage."
By this point, tears were dribbling down my cheeks. And I really, really, really hate crying in public. More after the jump.
"I'm a veteran," said Ben, another person who testified. "I spent my time serving so that people could sit and sleep on the streets, and now we're told we can't do that. The problem with this law is that homeless people have been around for thousands of years, and no matter what you do, you're not going to get rid of them. We're being told, suddenly, that there's no place to lay your head. My suggestion would be to have the politicians live on the street for a month."
"I think the sit-lie ordinance is a social status thing, and I don't think it's fair," said Ibrahim Mubarak, who had shown up to testify in his overcoat, with a backpack containing his belongings. "People who are working on their lunch breaks come out on the sidewalks and they talk, and nobody's targeting people like them. They're criminalizing people who are homeless. It used to be that the government was for the people...we can voice our opinion, we can protest, but we need other people to step up and help us. Because if they can do this to us, they can do it to you, too..."
Speaking of politicians...fortunately, I don't think anybody saw me crying, because I wasn't the only person who appeared profoundly affected by the testimony being given. City Commissioner Nick Fish was gracious enough to attend along with staffer Jamaal Folsom, and they spent more than two hours listening to what was being said.
Afterwards, Fish told me he was there "to listen, not to speak," but admitted that the testimony had been "very powerful and very helpful." He also told me he's been grilled repeatedly on these issues by a barista at Peet's coffee on Broadway, who happens to be an avid Blogtown reader, which made me proud.
City council candidates Amanda Fritz and Charles Lewis were also present. Lewis spoke to the crowd and left, while Fritz, like Fish, simply listened for more than two hours, and stayed around afterward to talk.
"[The ordinance] makes it illegal to be sleeping and homeless," said Fritz. "And that's not okay. I would have to hear something new and compelling to renew and continue this."
It was also reassuring to see Marc Jolin, Executive Director of homeless nonprofit JOIN, sitting in the audience taking copious notes, in front of the mayor's public advocate, Jeremy Van Keuren. Both men had taken time of their own to come and listen to what was said, and I think such sincerity about the process speaks volumes for their commitment to these issues.
"I think the testimony is compelling from folks on the street," said Jolin, afterward. "And I hope they show up to the SAFE oversight committee's hearing on Monday."
The SAFE oversight committee, indeed, is holding a separate hearing to guage community responses to the ordinance next week, on Monday August 11 at 3pm, at the First Unitarian Church at 1011 SW 12th, before drafting a report to go back to city council with in September. Van Keuren, who will be facilitating at that meeting, said: "I don't have all the answers. But I think it is important to consider the perspective of these folks when we try to decide what to do with this ordinance."
Former city council candidate Jeff Bissonnette was one of three members of the truth commission, whose job it was to listen to the testimony.
"I think this was an incredibly powerful experience," he said. "To hear people talk directly about they're experiencing, what it's like to be on the street and not have a place to go. While the city has been making great efforts to deal with the issue in terms of the 10 year plan [to end homelessness], I think we need to recognize we're heading into a very different economic time."
I really, sincerely hope city council is listening to, and hearing, what was said last night.
The last time we surveyed the City Commissioners, only Randy Leonard was willing to speak out against the ordinance on civil rights grounds. But it remains unclear whether he would be willing to actually vote against its continuance in September. Meanwhile, Commissioner Dan Saltzman and mayor-elect Sam Adams are understood to be in favor of continuing the ordinance, along with Tom Potter.
But a new council, come November, comprised of Fish and, probably, Fritz, or perhaps Lewis, would most likely have two members who appear concerned by the ordinance. If Leonard's civil rights concerns could be converted into standing up and voting against the ordinance, we may well see its defeat next year.
In the meantime, I am ashamed to live in Portland, Oregon. And so, by God, should you be.
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