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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Process Trumps Rights? Sit/Lie Renewal Debate...

Posted by Matt Davis on Wed, Apr 29, 2009 at 12:53 PM

Council looks ready to vote next week 4-1 to renew the sit/lie law for six months for more public outreach.

"We really appreciate your being here this morning," said Mayor Adams, addressing the 50 or so civil rights protesters gathered in council this morning. "This is a very progressive council committed to compassion." Adams said council is committed to affordable housing but that he was looking to get people's "best ideas" this morning about how to "balance the varying needs" of business people and the homeless.

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SIT/LIE PROTESTERS: FILLED THE COUNCIL CHAMBER THIS MORNING...

"We want more time to talk with you, rather than talk at you," said City Commissioner Amanda Fritz. "We could just vote [the sit/lie law] up or down today, but then what? One side would be happy, one side would be mad, and there would be much less incentive for people to come to the table and talk," said Fritz.

"When I campaigned last year I said that I would need a lot more evidence to support this ordinance," Fritz said. "Since I've been in office I've heard from a lot of downtown businesses who are struggling right now and who have said that this ordinance has been helpful."

"This is a human rights issue. Looking at this ordinance I see inhumane treatment for my fellow citizens, and it breaks my heart," said Tobiah Tillman, the first of 23 people signed up to testify.

"I'm very impressed with all the services in Portland tackling homelessness," said Graham Houser. "But this seems to run counter to that. Criminalizing homelessness just adds to the issue and makes it harder for homeless people. Maybe once the Resource Access Center for the homeless opens up, maybe then we can consider this, but until then, it just seems unjust."

"It blows my mind that we're able to talk about saving the earth through green buildings and sustainability while simultaneously criminalizing human existence," said Katie 'Stoop' Nilson, a prominent anti sit/lie activist and organizer during the homeless protests outside city hall last year.

"I don't have an outcome in mind for whether I am aiming to have this repealed or adopted in September," said Fritz, in response. "I think it's a great approach and we are all absolutely open to the results of this process," added Adams. More after the jump.

Other testimony focused on the inequity of the ordinance. "This does not apply to sidewalk cafes or hotels," said one person signed up to testify. "Why do we have to extend this, in order to think about it?" she asked, prompting a round of applause.

"Randy really called me onto the carpet and said if you're going to negotiate you really need to get what you ask, and it was a lesson I greatly appreciate learning from Randy," said Patrick Nolen, a former community organizer for Sisters of the Road, and now member of homeless advocacy organization Soapbox Under the Bridge. "We still haven't got what we asked for two years ago. We're still waiting for a resource access center that is so tied up in red tape, it's disappointing."

"Beyond the resource access center, the other services that we asked for we're still waiting for," Nolen continued. "I really want to call Randy out again, when he recognized that the bathrooms weren't going to be forthcoming, he picked up the bathrooms. I'm constantly hearing about the 471 benches in the downtown area, that this is somehow going to make homelessness better. About half of those are Trimet benches and it's illegal to use those for non-Trimet purposes. When I'm reading this SAFE report, that's one of their big things, that we have 471 benches downtown, but how many of those can't be used for one thing or another?"

"And even past this document, have you guys read this? I'm reading this, and I'm looking at other things," said Nolen, holding a copy of the city's Street Access For Everyone report. "On page ten, they mention what the big problem is. There have been people who lick display windows, spit at, grab or harass pedestrians who refuse to give money. I was homeless for eight years, and I don't remember doing that, but also, all those things are illegal. What possible reason is there for having a law about sitting or lying on the sidewalk, if we're upset about people spitting on others?"

Fish said he didn't want to use criminal statutes to punish the homeless, and that he wanted to understand better what Nolen meant. City Commissioner Randy Leonard said the community can't have it both ways. "I agree with Patrick's point exactly," he said. "When there are behaviors that are criminal, I don't care who is the perpetrator. If they're homeless or mentally ill, I have a very long history of not only trying to help people with those problems but hold them accountable for their various issues," he said.

"I think there are some people on our streets for whom using a criminal law is a mistake," said Fish.

"In a city where we're dealing with 12.5% unemployment and a $6.5million hole in the housing budget, why are we talking about different ways we can criminalize people?" Nolen asked.

"Part of your statement gave me pause as well," said Adams. "If we rely on enforcing the existing statutes, we're going to have a lot more people with criminal arrests. And I want to get them help."

"How many of those 179 people who were cited would have otherwise received criminal citations?" Nolen asked him.

"Be careful what you ask for," said Adams.

"Patrick's point was not that we should enforce criminal laws," said Leonard. "The bigger point was why would we allow to extend a policy that we have demonstrated doesn't work for people with these issues?"

"Your time is up," said Copwatch activist Dan Handelman. "You have had months since the release of the SAFE report and now you are seeking a renewal of this ordinance for another five months. This is an outrage. This abomination of a law needs to be scrapped. It is discriminatory, it is unfair, and as a judge said, it criminalises ordinary behavior. Right now if retailers are suffering low patronage, it's not because of people out there sitting on the sidewalk. It's because they might soon end up being out there on the sidewalk. I've got news for you, Portland Business Alliance and your friends. It could be you."

"The alliance is very pleased to be here today," said Portland Business Alliance CEO, Sandra McDonough, to boos and hisses from the audience. "SAFE is a model of how diverse communities can come together in a city to address problems that have never been addressed before. We look forward to working with commissioners Fritz and Fish. We've heard from a number of neighborhoods that they would like to extend the ordinance out to their neighborhoods, too."

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SIT/LIE TESTIMONY, CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: NILSON, NOLEN, MCDONOUGH, AND HANDELMAN...

"I am a homeless person, and I did try to get into the Portland Rescue Mission when they had a Winter Response Shelter," said Leo Rhodes. "I can't sit, I can't stand, one time I went and fell asleep on the max. I was awakened by two police officers, and because I have a tendency to keep my hand inside my jacket when I sleep they thought I had a gun, and they woke me up and they were saying, hey, he has a gun. One of the police officers asked me what drugs did I do, I said, I don't do drugs, I've been clean and sober for nine years. Another officer asked me why my eyes were so bloodshot, I said I hadn't slept properly in two days."

"It's encouraging to me that there are so many non-homeless people here who support us," he said. "If you really want to extend this thing, what I encourage you to do is set your alarm, 20 minutes. And when that alarm goes off I want you to get up and walk around a two block radius with a full backpack, inside your house, then go back to bed and walk around for 20 more minutes."

Rhodes got the biggest cheer of the morning for that remark.

"Sit/lie is unfairly enforced against people who are homeless. It violates Portlanders' civil rights," said Devin DiBernado from Sisters of the Road. "Portland should not trade civil rights for direct services. Please be a city that stands up for the rights of all in our community and get rid of sit/lie."

"This is about not in my neighborhood," said another testifier. "But if not in your neighborhood, then where?"

"We were talking earlier about arts funding. But artists aren't only a special creative class," said another. "I was talking to someone earlier who is on the streets with a four year degree in painting."

"I am one of your examples," said Shaggy Simpson, an 18-month Iraq war veteran who is now homeless. "I came back and found that the few freedoms that affect me were gone." He said he had been threatened with violence by Clean & Safe officers. "I see the higher class messing with the lower class, but I don't see the lower class doing anything to the higher class out of fear. You guys all understand what I'm trying to say. This law is garbage."

Fritz asked deputy City Attorney David Woboril if the ordinance had been found unconstitutional. Woboril said that one judge has ruled it is constitutional, and that another judge has found part of it unconstitutional.

"And when was that decision?" asked Fritz

"It was a few months ago," said Woboril.

"And has the city done anything about that decision?"

"The city wasn't a party in that litigation," Woboril responded, adding that the city did not feel that the discussion had been "properly fleshed out" in the court room in that case. "We respect the judge who made the ruling," he insisted. But admitted that the city has made no changes to the law in response.

"Why not let the ordinance expire and have those conversations?" asked City Commissioner Randy Leonard. "In the past, we've had this same kind of debate and I've found myself in the same position as I'm in now. It isn't that difficult of an issue to understand."

Leonard referred to his service coordination team approach as a way of helping homeless people without criminalizing them. The SCT has had controversies of its own.

"You can't just send people to jail," he said. "You have to give them choices."

"I'm willing to do things that people don't like if I think it's the right thing," said Leonard. "But I've heard people today and I think this is the wrong approach."

"I am committed to going through an honest process and public engagement," said City Commissioner Nick Fish. "But I am also grateful that the mayor and my colleagues have also said that housing the homeless is a priority. That first dollars in the budget go to housing."

Fish talked about funding for the Resource Access Center.

"No abstract distractions!" someone shouted from the audience.

"I don't put my name on an ordinance unless I believe in my heart and my head that it's the right thing to do," said Fritz. "It's actually changing my mind from what I thought I would do when I was campaigning last year. But I won't make this decision, feeling like I'm rushed."

The ordinance moved to a second reading next week.

"I hope you become homeless," yelled one audience member. "What goes around comes around," yelled another.

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