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Monday, August 26, 2013

Protest Bemoans Lack of Public Dialogue Over City Hall Food Carts... With Free Burritos!

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Mon, Aug 26, 2013 at 10:29 AM

Today marks the one-week anniversary of the new, and still largely unformed, food cart pod in the plaza outside Portland City Hall—an amenity that arrived only after an 18-month religious vigil for the homeless was booted as part of a city crackdown late last month.

As the Mercury reports in this week's issue, citing emails obtained in a public records request, planning for that pod began weeks ago in Mayor Charlie Hales' office. City hall had been whispering for weeks about potential plans to add retail space in the building and draw people in, but Hales' office confirmed the plans only after it got ready to kick out the vigil and a nearby camping protest on the sidewalks outside city hall.

The hush-hush nature of those talks—the city spent nearly $4,000 ordering tables and chairs for the new pod weeks before sweeping out homeless protestors—hasn't been sitting so well with housing justice advocates and groups like Portland Copwatch. And this morning, from 11 am to 1 pm, a group led by former political candidate and hunger striker Cameron Whitten will be distributing free burritos in the plaza as part of a rally meant to spark that belated public conversation.

Whitten says he personally thinks there's "room for all" outside city hall. But "there hasn't been a public dialogue about security at city hall, there hasn't been a public dialogue about who should be outside, there hasn't been a public dialogue about the sweeps [of homeless campers in and around downtown]."

"We want to slow it down," he says. "It's moving very fast in one direction."

Late last week, Regina Hannon and Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch wrote the the Portland City Council about the city's approach to the homeless and raised the group's continued concerns about the cart pod.

"We earlier cautioned the Mayor about putting up a food cart in City Hall plaza, which has gone ahead with no public discussion and apparently, no serious thought about rules for using the associated tables or how the lines at the cart will impede access to City Hall as much as or more than the homeless people protesting outside for 1.5 years ever did," they wrote.

Whitten is hoping today's rally could be used to help out Old Town homeless rest area Right 2 Dream Too and rehire a beloved security guard at city hall, Cindy Williams. The city, in in current last budget, cut money for security guards in city hall. He also says his group has raised some money for the lone cart that's been in place so far, Fuego. (He declined to say how much, saying it would be up to Fuego's operator to release that.)

Whitten told me he was making the burritos while talking to me, a bit before 10 this morning. The burritos will be vegan and mostly organic—"unfortunately not the avocados," he says.

And I can vouch: Whitten's a pretty good cook. He once brought the Mercury some avocado smoothies, and they were totally yummy. Whitten will probably run out, and if he does, he says, "I might buy some from the food cart."

Read his full statement on the jump.

This Monday, lunch hour at City Hall will be occupied by local activists, giving away Free Burritos as a pushback to recent behaviors executed by the Hales Administration. They hope that Mayor Hales will reconsider an approach that practically criminalizes homelessness, and allow the larger community to facilitate a discussion about how to best utilize resources to address public safety.

The protest will take place outside of the City Hall plaza, a former focal point for housing rights activists, who were displaced to make way for a food court being marketed by City Hall Insiders. Organizers will leave a large financial contribution for the Fuego food cart owner who already moved in, because they “do not want to target the food cart or its owner, but bring awareness to the poorly discussed policy”.

The group plans to use the Free Burrito rally as a springboard to raise funds that will partially re-hire widely acclaimed security officer Cindy Williams, who will be out of a job due to staffing cuts, and also to benefit Right 2 Dream Too, a housing rights organization.

Cameron Whitten, a social justice activist who initiated a 55-day hunger strike for homeless last year, is involved in coordinating the demonstration. He states, “Since the Mayor is away on vacation, we want to do this demonstration to encourage our community to begin speaking up about their concerns.”
Central to the protest’s grievances is a lack of vision and citizen access to City Hall.

• The defunding of G4S Security at City Hall, which will discourage citizen groups from reserving City Hall for events due to increased security costs
• Prepared statements from the Mayor’s office which comes dangerously close to criminalizing homelessness, drawing concern from community advocates who feel left out of the discussion
• The forced evacuation of the City Hall protest vigil, replaced by a $4,000 City investment in lawn furniture

The Free Burrito activists claim these actions are not the result of forward thinking policies, they only endanger our progress as a community to proactively engage in addressing homelessness. The trifecta of policy blunders is a signal that the Hales administration is failing to meet its goal of increasing citizen accessibility to City Hall.

The demonstration reflects frustration that has been voiced by housing advocates and civic leaders over the past weeks. A recent editorial from Street Roots said, “Street Roots and others saw years of hard work about how to frame this issue to get common Portlanders to engage in working together to solve homelessness flash before our eyes” and “Sitting quietly in the background are lobbyists for the business community who are pushing an agenda to government”.

The rally organizers say that if conditions surrounding the accessibility of City Hall don’t improve, a Free Burrito protest may potentially become an ongoing practice in the future.

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