While some of Portland's so-called homeless advocates are busy joining the Portland Business Alliance, Patrick Nolen's new Soapbox Under The Bridge project is camping out on the sidewalk tonight to draw attention to the arbitrary nature of the city's anti-camping laws.
It's illegal to camp out overnight in Portland, even though more than 1500 people do so every night because they either can't get into shelters, or they're scared of the conditions inside. Right now there's a class action lawsuit against the city of Portland over the law because our city commissioners are reluctant to get rid of it even with the waiting list for housing a mile long, but in the mean time, there's a loophole in the law relating to parades, and guess who's all over it?
Stull showed me the city code by torchlight in his folder. Here:
14A.55.010 Access to Public Property for Parade Event. - Printable Version
A.It is unlawful to paint, tape, or otherwise mark public property or place objects in the right-of-way for the purpose of reserving space for a parade event.
B.City of Portland may remove unauthorized materials left on public property or the right-of-way.
C.Camping overnight, to reserve a space in the public right-of-way along side the parade route, may be allowed as set forth in administrative rule. Overnight camping under this section is a limited exception to Portland City Code 14A.50.020 and 14A.50.030.
When I arrived at 9:45, Nolen and his pals were being asked to move on and also to show their identification by three rent-a-cops from firm Pacific Patrol Services, inc, which does security for Pioneer Square.
"The park closes at midnight, and it's curb to curb," said rent-a-cop supervisor Jonathan J Kapiniak. "You can't camp here."
"I don't have to show you my identification," said Hardway.
"We're waiting for a parade," said Nolen.
Stull showed the rent-a-cops his Portland Bureau of Transportation documents which show an 18ft border around Pioneer Square as the public right of way. "We're allowed to camp here," he said. "Because we're waiting for a parade."
"We're celebrating the fact that the anti-camping ordinance has a loophole," said Stull. "If camping is so dangerous, why allow it on a few nights each year?"
"That's part of the problem," said Walden, discussing the situation with another rent-a-cop. "Part of the law refers to this as a public park while others say it's private property, but the bureau of transportation says we can pass here in the public right of way. Don't tell me it isn't private when you're asking me to leave. You are private police. I live downtown, I work downtown, and I shop downtown. My money pays your check."
Burrrrrn. Eventually the rent-a-cops left the activists be. "We're going to allow you to camp here for the night," they said. "But we're going to check with our supervisors about this law."
High-fives all round. "These folks were tiptoeing past saying we've got to get through, and I said 'my friends, we'll have these officers out of the way for you in just a minute'," said Stull, breaking into infectious laughter.
They all huddled round. "We're won," said Nolen, "but we need to be careful to be good winners. Let's be careful to be polite and respectful to the officers and try not to block the sidewalk."
They'll be out there at the Pride Parade when it swings past at 11 tomorrow morning. It's been a while since I felt good about homeless activism in Portland—I hear so many arguments about "priorities" and "fighting the real battle" from all sides that it's hard not to feel bitter, angry, let down and frustrated sometimes. But not tonight.
The city's homeless and parks commissioner is former civil rights attorney Nick Fish, so he's responsible for the reaction of the rent-a-cops ("park closes at midnight," "show us your identification...") and the city's ongoing enforcement of the anti-camping law. City Commissioner Amanda Fritz is also conducting outreach on the sit/lie and anti-camping laws along with Fish so I've sent them both an email requesting comment and will post their responses as soon as we get them.
UPDATE: With "victory photo":
Get the best of the Mercury each week in your inbox!