Last year, for the first time, Multnomah County and the Portland Housing Bureau and, especially, Street Roots worked hard to produce something we'd never seen before: an attempt to tally, over the course of 12 months, deaths among those among us living on the street.
That first report showed 47 people died while homeless last year, and it was a slap in the face. Was it an aberration? Would the next year be better? Sadly, no. The second annual report (pdf), officially released this morning, shows deaths have climbed to 56. It's too soon to draw a trend line, but an increase isn't what anyone working on this report wanted to see.
Especially since both reports—drawing only from cases worked by a medical examiner, and not including the deaths of anyone who first made it to a hospital before dying—mask a potentially huge undercount. Every day, according to a stat that's soon to be revised, some 1,700 people are without shelter in our region every day.
"That's pretty alarming in my mind," Israel Bayer, director of Street Roots, told the Mercury.
Many details in the report are equally grim. The average age of the 56 human beings recorded in this year's report was just 46 years old. Almost half—20—died from overdoses. Eighteen of those ODs involved some kind of opiates. Ten more people killed themselves—homelessness is, itself, a painful experience for many and the isolation and lack of access to care can compound that pain for so many people. Both the suicide and OD counts should rightly be seen as related, a question of health care and resources for that care and access.
In addition, one person was burned to death (no report or further details are provided), another drowned, and another froze.
Right 2 Dream Too—the thriving Old Town tent refuge for the homeless currently waging a legal battle against Portland over code violation fines—has posted its latest bill from the city's Bureau of Development Services.
The city, you'll recall, is treating the place like an unpermitted "recreational" campground—a characterization organizers, clients, and their attorneys vehemently dispute. But the city hasn't budged, and so the new unpaid total, as of this month, has hit $17,128.93. That's a sizable but steady bump since the last time organizers posted their bill, back in January. With interest and penalties, the monthly hit is now more than $1,500.
The well-run refuge opened in October 2011. Though cops anecdotally say it's helped, not hurt, crime, the site quickly annoyed groups like the Portland Business Alliance and has been blamed by developer David Gold for the failure of his heavily city-financed plan to redevelop the old Grove Hotel across NW 4th from the rest area.
It's even received the back of the hand from social services providers like Transition Projects Inc., which runs shelter beds and helps operate the city's multimillion-dollar homeless day center, Bud Clark Commons. TPI director Doreen Binder, who's also backing the PBA's attempt to tighten sidewalk laws and is close to Police Chief Mike Reese, called Right 2 Dream Too a "blight" in a recent piece by the Daily Journal of Commerce.
"It’s an unacceptable temporary situation,” she said. “It’s a blight on our visual, and it’s a blight on the statement about what we think about people and what we’re willing to do to help people. I don’t think it’s an acceptable way to live.”
Spokesman Ibrahim Mubarak, however, says the site, which rents its land for pennies a month, is soldiering on. Last month, he says, 11 people left for permanent housing while others took advantage of the chance for a quiet and safe night of sleep.
"We're meeting with our lawyers today," he says.
No one really likes doing business this way, but here's the fundamental truth about Portland City Council: Count to three, and you can probably get what you want.
So now it's budget season, and some $2.3 million worth of housing and social-services programs are on the chopping block. And though it's weeks before council really puts together a budget, it looks like a Street Roots-led campaign whose express purpose is to fight off every last one of those cuts, has clawed its way to that golden political number.
On the Facebook page for "We Are the Safety Net," you'll now find the smiling faces of three commissioners—Steve Novick, Amanda Fritz, and Nick Fish—all holding signs proudly proclaiming their support.
Fish and Fritz backed last year's version of the campaign, which managed to extract nearly every one of its goals from a city council that still found itself cutting money, if not quite as deeply as the $25 million will need to make up this year. Adding a third commissioner, like Novick, makes this year's campaign all the more interesting.
All three could have easily watched with quiet support as hundreds of non-electeds endorsed the cause. But by personally throwing in with a cause that has such explicit (and explicitly robust) goals, and after helping deliver last year, it certainly sends a complicating message to Mayor Charlie Hales about priorities. And political arithmetic.
Says Israel Bayer, director of Street Roots:
Right now we're cautiously optimistic about the safety net campaign. We have a great coalition of community groups and civic leaders who have come forward and said housing and homeless services need to be prioritized in this budget.
Our electeds are very smart. They understand the complexity of these services and how they're not only providing people housing and being cost effective, but also how they are tied to important things like public safety and healthcare.
We also understand there's still a big deficit for the city to overcome. We're hoping for the best.
The campaign was called "I Support the Portland Safety Net," and politicians and other local holders of fame helped lift it into a position of effective prominence in city hall. (It also helped that Mayor Sam Adams was wheeling and dealing for a schools bailout and was looking for a vote from then-housing Commissioner Nick Fish.)
Fast forward a year, however, and things aren't looking just as bad. They're way worse. And that's why, this morning, the campaign was relaunched and rebranded in hopes of making a similar splash. This year's reboot is called "We Are the Safety Net." The coalition is hoping to fend off as much as $2.3 million in newly proposed housing cuts that would undo last year's victories. Those cuts would go painfully deep, touching programs like the Clark Center men's shelter, winter shelter space for women and families, and rent assistance checks. (A detailed list is here.)
The campaign comes as the city contemplates closing fire stations, laying off cops, easing up on parks maintenance, and very likely asking workers throughout its bureaus to forgo future pay hikes. So far, in the face of those choices, only the Clark Center has received a faint whisper of reprieve from the city budget office.
The center is run by Transition Projects, which is run, in turn, by Doreen Binder, who was ready to serve as treasurer for Police Chief Mike Reese's almost-maybe-probably mayoral campaign in late 2011. Binder was at a community budget forum in St. Johns this Tuesday asking for the center to remain open—noting the immediate effect of kicking 90 more men onto the streets and the ripple effect closure would have on shelter waiting lists. She's even found a high-profile city hall lobbyist in the Portland Business Alliance, through its Clean & Safe arm (pdf).
"We Are the Safety Net" isn't willing to leave things there, though.
"We realize the city has a lot of hard choices. We also know that there's no more important issue facing our city today than the social safety net," says Israel Bayer, director of Street Roots. "We believe that the city should absolutely fund the Clark Center. "We also believe they can find a way to fund a range of important services provided by the housing bureau and one-time money. We have elderly grandmothers sleeping on our streets. We have individuals literally dying out here and government has important role to play. Everyone deserves an opportunity for housing."
Show your support by raising your hand, as I've done at the top of this post, and showing it to the internet. And city hall.
"Just hours" before Cisneros was shot, the station says, he was filmed by one of their camera operators at the longstanding anti-camping-ban protest outside Portland City Hall. KATU was talking to participants in teh protest while reporting a story on the Portland Business Alliance's sidewalk bill in Salem. Later, they circled back to the protest and asked if anyone remembered Cisneros—they did, and some said he didn't seem well.
One of the mainstays at the protest, a funny and warm guy who guys by the name "99," told KATU about their talks together.
KATU's cameras captured Cisneros in the corner of its video while a reporter interviewed a man who goes by the name "99" – for the 99 percent. Cisneros stood quietly nearby a few feet away and listened. He stayed at City Hall until just hours before the shootout. Cisneros never said anything to the reporter, but "99" remembered him well.
"He said, 'Man you guys, you're surrounded by great people.' And I says, 'Yeah, you're one of them.'"
Cisneros, an Iraq war veteran, was known to have struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and admitted having tried suicide before in an interview with a Seattle TV news station in 2009. The Oregonian, citing sources who leaked details about the shooting before the two cops who shot Cisneros spoke to internal affairs investigators (the PPA?), wrote a piece last week concluding Cisneros' death was a foregone conclusion.
The Portland Business Alliance's legislative push for a return to harsher sidewalk rules apparently has a bit of wind at its back. And if that matters to you, and civil rights really should, you ought to pay attention and start speaking out.
The group's specially written bill, HB 2963, has been sent from the House Judiciary Committee, which introduced it, to the the House Transportation and Economic Development Committee. And a work session on the bill is scheduled for 3 pm tomorrow. That's not quite a guarantee the bill will move on. But it does indicate it's likely headed to a public hearing.
The office of committee chair Tobias Read, D-Beaverton, said it familiar with the bill didn't have anyone available for comment this morning. The office of vice chairman Chris Gorsek, D-Gresham, said it wasn't familiar with the bill and declined to comment. Same for the office of vice chairman Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, which, like the House Judiciary Committee last month, suggested I get all my information directly from the PBA.
"We don't have any information on that for you," Bentz's office said. "Call the chief sponsor of the bill."
Update 1:20 PM: Becky Straus, the ACLU of Oregon's legislative director (and top lobbyist on Portland issues), says the session is all about sending the bill back to Judiciary and that the "assignment to Transportation was a mis-assignment.
I have, once again—leaving a message for PBA spokeswoman Megan Doern. Once again.
News of the bill was first reported by the Portland Business Journal. As a refresher, here's what I wrote in last week's paper:
A bill introduced by the House Judiciary Committee, at the urging of the powerful downtown lobbying group, would lift away state rules that limit how far cities can go in deciding who gets to use public sidewalks and who can't. The tightly worded bill, HB 2963, would allow cities to regulate sidewalks as they please.
While the bill's fate is highly uncertain, it raises the dark specter of a return to the city's old sit-lie regime—given its name because it banned otherwise law-abiding people from sitting or lying down on sidewalks. The old law died in June 2009 when Multnomah County Judge Stephen Bushong said it ran afoul of Oregon's constitution.
The Portland Business Alliance is asking Salem for permission to return to the bad old days of Portland's judiciary-rejected sit-lie law—an unconstitutional ordinance that banned otherwise law-abiding people from sitting and lying down or generally not-shopping on the city's sidewalks.
A bill introduced under the auspices of the House Judiciary Committee earlier this week would make it so state protections on free speech wouldn't pre-empt cities' right to limit how sidewalks are used. Judge Stephen Bushong, when he cast down sit-lie in 2009, said at the time that a local ban on conduct permitted under state law would run afoul of the Oregon Constitution.
"I ruled that [the sit-lie law] is preempted by state law," says Bushong. "It prohibits conduct permitted by state law, and that's not permitted under article 11, section two of our Oregon Constitution."
Normally, business groups like the PBA love the concept of pre-emption. It's how they keep progressive majorities in places like Multnomah County from passing things like cigarette taxes and real estate transfer taxes and local sales taxes and on and on. But after nearly three years of a slow burn over failing to sweep our sidewalks of people they claim keep suburban shoppers from dropping coin at downtown stores, suddenly, in this one case, pre-emption has become a terrible burden preventing a righteous amount of urban cleansing.
Nothing in the criminal or general law of the state, other than a limitation by express provision, shall be construed to preempt a city's authority to control or regulate, through a civil municipal ordinance or administrative regulation, the use of the sidewalks within the city.
Israel Bayer, director of Street Roots and a friend of anybody in Portland looking for a hand up and a little bit of dignity, has written an important essay in the paper's online edition about homelessness and the power of perception and the shitty, dehumanizing myths people all too often indulge.
The piece starts with the story of a vendor outside Powell's who lovingly safeguarded a cherished military medal a broken-hearted woman dropped outside the store. It goes on to make the point that everybody has a story and deserves respect and a chance.
But aren’t homeless and poor people supposed to be scary? Don’t homeless people just sit around and drink and take from society? Aren’t they a menace to commerce?
We believe Street Roots is shattering those myths....
We believe everyone is equal at Street Roots. It’s not always easy.
Bill is a long-time drugstore cowboy. Jimmy is a former Crip and coming off 4-year run in the pen and wants to leave street life behind. George use to run with the Aryan Nation, and turning his life and belief system around. Bobby has cancer and is dying a slow death without adequate treatment. Tammy just became homeless and is running from domestic violence. Carol has finally got it together enough to try to kick the dope. Tom is coming back from two tours in Afghanistan and is fighting demons in his head. Dick has been homeless for 20 years after growing up in abuse. The names have been changed for privacy, but the list goes on and on.
That's just a taste. Read the whole thing here. And never forget it.
It's been plain all along that this was going to be an especially ugly city budget season, what with Mayor Charlie Hales' call for universal 10 percent cuts and a fight over what scraps might be left after city council closes a $25 million deficit. But somehow that realization doesn't even begin to describe what it's like actually looking through the bureaus' proposals for how they'd manage cuts that deep.
Earlier today, I looked briefly at the police budget—where it seems like some cops, no matter how much the ax is blunted, will still be laid off. Now comes the Portland Housing Bureau, which is prepared to cut $2.3 million but begging to add back just less than half.
At worst, under the plan it submitted to the city budget office, it would close much of the Clark Center, a shelter serving hundreds of men, and also the city's winter shelters for women and kids and people suffering from mental illness. More than half of the $1.1 million in "add backs" sought by the bureau would restore those two programs.
And at best—if all that money is restored? Hundreds of families and people of color and homeless Portlanders would still be cut off from services. The bureau was smart enough to break down how many people—and whom—would be affected by the cuts it's not looking to fight.
Last Tuesday, Debbie and Ron Austin—two of Portland's longest-tenured foreclosure resisters—finally got the dreaded doorknocking from the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office and were rousted, along with their kids, from their Southeast Portland home in the pre-dawn dark.
The Austins' story, however, is especially worth reading. Yes, they got behind on their mortgage payments because of medical bills. But they also successfully obtained a loan modification and got to keep their home. Or so they thought. Months of payments weren't counted by their lender because of a bureaucratic error—restarting the countdown to foreclosure. And then? The legal system, they say, failed them.
In a lengthy letter posted on Facebook this weekend, Debbie Austin wonders why the family's bankruptcy lawyer didn't step in. (I've left him a message seeking comment.) She also singles out Multnomah County Judge Karin Immergut (a controversial, Bush-appointed ex-US attorney ) for ignoring the canceled checks and receipts Austin held up as proof her family had been fulfilling their legal obligation.
The heartbreaking story proceeds from there. And now there's a security guard sitting inside the Austins' house.
Well, I hope all my friends see this and share it with everyone they know...
As most of you know, we have been fighting this ILLEGAL FORECLOSURE AND EVICTION that HomeStreet Bank, MERS and FNMA (Fannie Mae) filed against us.
This nightmare started back in 2008 when Ron got a pay cut at his work and his second job was taken away from him.
Shortly thereafter he was diagnosed with cancer and in the same month I had a 2nd back surgery which crippled my right foot. We filed bankruptcy in 2009 and I was diagnosed with rectal cancer.
We applied for a "loan modification" which we were granted and looked forward to getting our lives back on track.
Over the weekend, organizers for Right 2 Dream Too—the "rest area" for the homeless flourishing on some vacant parcels at NW 4th and Burnside—took to Facebook and posted their latest assessment from the city's code enforcement bureau.
The bill is part of a yearlong city crackdown, since spun out into a court fight, that accuses the site of illegally operating as a "recreational" campground. And, according to a high-resolution copy of the bill obtained this afternoon, some big numbers pop out.
The overall amount owed by the group and its landlords—who are leasing out their prime downtown property for pennies a year? $12,592.02, including interest payments and other late fees. The monthly fine? More than $1,400. And how much has R2DToo and its supporters sent the city so far? $3,833—putting the total fines/penalties levied by the city at more than $16,000. Court papers filed last month said the amount owed, as of September, was about half as much.
The group has been quietly helping scores of Portlanders with its low-drama, low-to-no-cost model of success and empowerment since it opened in October 2011. Meanwhile, developers and other powerful downtown voices, like the Portland Business Alliance, are trying to persuade city officials to shut the place down.
They've even been playing dirty. The PBA sent a letter, for instance, accusing the camp of seeding a crime spike in Old Town. But as we reported last month, the police bureau—after looking at the statistics when we asked for them—said that couldn't be proven true.
This bill also raises some questions. Where does all that penalty money go? Will the city donate it to social services agencies doing similar work? And why is Right 2 Dream Too, and not its landlords, named on the bill. The city has routinely taken pains to try and distinguish between the two when it was making, before the lawsuit silenced them, its more bellicose comments.
All the same, I've phone up Ross Caron, spokesman for the Bureau of Development Services, and I'll update if I hear back.
As you might recall, the Portland Business Alliance sent a stern letter to Commissioner Dan Saltzman last week demanding that he dramatically step up efforts to oust Right 2 Dream Too, the successful tent refuge that's been operating at NW 4th and Burnside since October 2011.
The PBA, in making its case, listed two major concerns: a slew of code complaints (some people would rather not look at tents), but also "an increase in illegal activities in the area." The letter specifically accuses R2DToo of having "generated" both—directly contradicting anecdotal statements from residents, cops, and some neighbors that crime is down because of the camp.
The problem, though? The crime stats around R2DToo, comparing the 12 months before it opened to the 12 months after, don't actually prove the PBA right. The Mercury asked the police bureau to pull the numbers (PDF) after reporting on the PBA's letter.
While crime did go up in a 1,000 foot radius around R2DToo, it also went up all throughout the police bureau's Central Precinct, which includes Old Town. Further, the increase around R2DToo was much smaller than that overall increase in Central Precinct, and some crimes—like aggravated assaults and robberies—actually bucked the trend for the precinct and went down.
Even that's not definitive, though. The area around R2DToo is part of a much larger Old Town/Chinatown ecosystem—an ecosystem that's earned an increased amount of scrutiny and police attention over the past year. Much of the neighborhood is in a drug-impact area, for instance, meaning foot patrols are up.
Sergeant Pete Simpson, the bureau's main spokesman, cautioned that the only way to tell which crimes were directly affiliated with R2DToo, and make blanket statements about an increase or decrease, is to read through hundreds of police reports.
Looking at the full package of numbers, Simpson said: "I don’t think it shows crime up or down in relation to R2D2."
Maybe the PBA has different or better numbers to back up their assertion? I emailed Megan Doern, the PBA's spokeswoman, with that question, and I'll update if and when I hear back.
Now that a lawsuit has been filed over months of code violation fines, Portland City Hall can no longer talk openly about Right 2 Dream Too—the well-managed rest area for the homeless leasing a lot at the highly visible corner of NW 4th and Burnside.
That doesn't apply to the Portland Business Alliance, which remains bitterly opposed to the presence of the camp and, according to lobbying reports regularly reminds city commissioners of that fact. The PBA is so bitterly opposed, in fact, that in a recent letter urging Mayor Sam Adams and Commissioner Dan Saltzman to crack down on the tent refuge, it couldn't even bring itself to print R2DToo's name.
The letter (PDF) was sent Tuesday, a day after R2DToo filed its lawsuit. The Mercury obtained it through a public records request. And besides using phrases like "illegal camp" and "illegal encampment," the letter doesn't mince words about whom the PBA is fighting for.
It calls for the city, since its "current fine-based remedy does not appear to be having an effect," to "seek and apply other tools at its disposal" to persuade R2DToo and its landlords to "comply with city law." But later, the PBA minces only slightly its words about who ought to be handling this issue instead of the Bureau of Development Services: the Portland Police Bureau.
At least I assume that's what Sandy McDonough means by "appropriate."
The lawsuit, filed by attorney Mark Kramer, is a big deal in that it will force some overt dialogue on a conflict the city, led by Commissioner Dan Saltzman's office has preferred to let quietly burn. The suit says Saltzman's Bureau of Development Services is unfairly treating Right 2 Dream Too like a "recreational campground" and asks the city treat it just like Dignity Village, a transitional housing site up in far-out Northeast Portland that isn't subject to the same standards as a "recreational" site. State law allows two such sites in each city.
The suit also asks BDS to waive the thousands of dollars in fines it's levied against the property owners starting a few months after BDS declared the rest area—a successful, safe and self-policing site where as many as 80 people sleep daily—a code violation.
Kramer hinted at this approach in a letter sent to city hall over the summer. He sat down with Saltzman and Housing Commissioner Nick Fish and their staffers twice since then. The city admitted it knew of no safety or health concerns at R2DToo but wouldn't budge on waiving fines that now clock in at $1,200 a month. It also told advocates they'd support a different site in Old Town—but that advocates would have to find it themselves.
"Right 2 Dream Too is not a Boy Scouts camp, it's not a Girl Scouts camp, it's not a recreational camp," Kramer told the crowd. "It's a temporary shelter for homeless people because the city cannot meet the needs of the homeless in our society."
I'm pretty sure the moment for giving thanks officially expired some time last night, evaporating in the beer-and-turkey fart clouds rising from all the awful greed fests lined up outside big box stores up and down 82nd Avenue. (And downtown. And Jantzen Beach.)
But this video below—and this article linked here—remind me I ought to issue one more holiday benediction. I'm thankful for our friends at Street Roots. They make a good newspaper. They offer a strong, willing hand up to those ready to grab onto it. And they speak up, and speak to power, on issues some of us would rather just banish with a swing of the nightstick.
Spend a few minutes with Raymond, and you'll understand.
A week after housing activists rallied around a family facing eviction in Outer Southeast—a confrontation that drew riot cops and saw the use of pepper spray—the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office this morning took a more strategic approach when showing up at another Portland home where a family had vowed to defy an order to quit.
The sheriff's office confirmed sending deputies this morning to a house occupied by Will and Heather Sirotak, a couple who recently lost a court fight arguing their foreclosed home near NE Cesar Chavez and Klickitat had been illegally sold at auction earlier this year. The Sirotaks, vocal in the anti-foreclosure movement, say their bank refused to work with them after Heather Sirotak was treated for a cancer that her insurer classified as a pre-existing condition and her husband lost his job as a construction manager amid a downturn.
But in a shift, according to activists with We Are Oregon, deputies seemed to be trying to subvert the same rapid-response network of sympathizers who showed up last week. Angus Maguire, spokesman for the group, said deputies in unmarked cars waited until Will Sirotak left the house with his granddaughter and then tailed him, even detaining him briefly, before knocking on the door of the home. Eventually, both the home's front and back doors were broken down and Heather Sirotak was escorted out while still in her pajamas—her phone, which she was using to call supporters, having been taken away.
Sheriff's spokesman Lieutenant Steve Alexander wouldn't comment on "tactics," but said deputies "did have to go through the door."
"She refused to vacate and she was trying to use the phone," he said. "They removed that distraction from her hand and gave it right back to her."
Maguire said Heather Sirotak's call to the response network's dispatcher—the person in charge of sending text alerts—was cut off mid-sentence, but that the dispatcher sent out the alert anyway. But Maguire also said there was an unexplained hiccup in the dispatch system for several minutes. Eventually, the alert was canceled.
"There's no explanation as to why," he said. "We haven't had problems with it in the past."
"It's either Whole Foods in the Pearl, or fried food from the convenience stores," says Adrienne Karecki, director of business enterprises at CCC. "The cart's food will provide tasty, fresh, and cheap options for people in the area."
The My Street Grocery truck took off in May, with weekly routes to grocery-isolated neighborhoods, senior residences, and other lower-income areas. Alongside traditional grocery wares (like milk, bread, eggs), the cart sells in-season local produce, as well as individual $3/serving "Meal Kits" packed with all someone needs for a filling and nutritious meal.
Monday, Sept. 24 at 1:30 p.m. marks the truck's first visit to a garage on Broadway and NW Couch, near Central City Concern’s sprawling set of buildings. Although owner Amelia Pape had wanted to expand the route to the Old Town for a while, she waited until her business could accept food stamps to better meet the needs of lower-income customers.
"Our mission has always been expanding fresh food access to all," Pape said. "This demographic is an integral part to our goal."
CCC is giving the My Street Grocery route a monthlong run to see if it's a feasible offering for its clientele. If the route is successful, Karecki says, CCC will consider funding a portion of the program. Stop by Monday's opening to find out more.
"Like all interesting people and places, Portland, Oregon is a multifaceted character," writes Aaron Gilbreath. "There is Portland the socially progressive utopia of artists, food carts and environmentally conscious urbanism. And there is the Portland of pretension, heroin addiction, racial separation and rampant homelessness. The city occupies a county that has over 15,000 homeless people. That figure includes not only people who sleep on the street and in shelters, but those who sleep on friends’ couches and in cars and in transitional housing. In 2009, Oregon ranked first in the nation for homelessness per capita."
Gilbreath, a Portland-based writer (and occasional Mercury freelancer), become troubled that "the sheer scale of homelessness here means that you can easily became immune to the presence of it." In 2011, he conducted a series of on-the-street interviews with homeless Portlanders, and the resulting conversations are currently running on Chicago-based literary journal Curbside Splendor.
Gilbreath is a good writer—which is why I occasionally pay him to write book reviews!—and the interviews reflect an interesting range of experiences. The first one is from a 23-year-old who's about to catch a train back to Boise to get a Cometbus tattoo. Which is... aw. There are some funny moments, too. From the second interview:
But it’s pretty easy to get along here, relatively, because there are a lot of resources?
Greg: We have a lot of resources, and a lot of drag queens.
Mayor Sam Adams' office just sent out a release addressing an important, if quietly placed, item on this week's Portland City Council agenda: a long-awaited settlement in a nearly four-year-old lawsuit challenging the city's rules against camping, structures, and park exclusions.
I shared my thoughts about the settlement late Friday, after reading through the city documents posted along with the council agenda. The deal doesn't legalize small-scale camping, like some might have hoped. Rather, it gives money to rent assistance programs and requires the police to follow stricter protocols for preserving whatever property is confiscated after campsites are cleared.
Adams' office notes that a lot of what the settlement says will be spelled out in policy has been informally in place over the past few years. It also highlights one of the hallmarks of Adams' tenure as the city's budget maestro: Millions in new funding, even amid tight finances, for safety net programs.
The settlement agreement acknowledges and formalizes work the City has done over the last three years that improves and makes more consistent the way it enforces these ordinances. The City has agreed to pay a total of $3,200 in damages to the six plaintiffs and three other individuals who brought claims at the same time. In lieu of paying attorney fees, the City will make $37,000 available for its Rent Assistance program, which helps people experiencing homelessness afford permanent housing. The plaintiffs have agreed to dismiss the lawsuit pending in federal court.
“Our work to prevent and end homelessness is ongoing. This agreement is a step forward to improve relations between individuals experiencing homelessness and officers enforcing city laws,” said Mayor Sam Adams.
It's still a little disappointing that there wasn't some way to also make more formal what's been a quiet policy in parts of town—under bridges and overpasses and along highways—where civil, no-trouble campsites are very often tolerated by police. Without that, there's still some leeway for homeless Portlanders to find themselves unjustly targeted.
But, also like I wrote last week, there's a glimmer of hope in that a judge is looking in on this for the next three years. If the bureau isn't training its cops to follow the terms of this deal—if civil rights violations still crop up, then maybe this won't be the last word.
Adams' office's full statement is after the cut.
It's not obvious what this is just from looking at next week's Portland City Council agenda.
But that item above marks the quiet end to a nearly four-year legal fight over Portland's anti-camping laws—AKA, in some circles, the city's "camping ban." Why a "quiet" end? Unlike in a 2010 attempt at a settlement, which would have actually allowed some small-scale campsites, this version preserves the city's rules on camping, temporary structures, and park exclusion orders.
So what's the city giving up? It will pay a few thousand dollars to the plaintiffs, pay $37,000 in legal fees for the Oregon Law Center (which is donating the money to the Portland Housing Bureau to pay for rent assistance programs), and agree to clarify its definition of what constitutes a campsite and take better care of the property it confiscates when cleaning up a site or telling someone to move along.
Those points are meant to answer the main complaint raised by the plaintiffs in their class-action suit: That cops roust homeless Portlanders unnecessarily and sometimes trash their stuff when they do.
According to the city's 12-page settlement document, the city's definition of an "established campsite" so that it includes the words "a camp structure such as a hut, lean-to, tent, or other temporary structure such as carts and/or personal property." That's to help cops tell the difference between someone who's merely sleeping outside and not "camping."
And when it comes to handling property, the police bureau will now have to photograph, and keep a a written log of, whatever items its officers confiscate and put into storage. Officers also will have to videotape campsites, post-clearing, so anyone who had property taken can see what was saved and what was junked.
It's unclear whether this changes what's actually happening on the streets. Cops continue to turn a blind eye, depending on the officer and mood he or she is in, to small-scale campsites so long as they're out of the way or not causing anyone any harm or creating other problems. The problem has always been one of consistency—those on the streets can't rest easy knowing that just because one cop gave them a pass that another, or even the same cop on a different day, might not do the same.
The settlement does include a promise to train cops on its terms. So maybe that's a start. It also helps that the judge who approved the deal will also spend the next three years looking over everyone's shoulder.
We talk a lot about the vulnerability of people living on Portland's streets—nearly 40 percent of homeless people in Portland report being the victim of an assault.
But incidents like the one the police report today make the statistics feel more real. At about 2 am Tuesday night, officers responded to a house on SE 47th and Woodstock after a resident phoned in that a bloody man had appeared on her porch and asked her to call 911. Police found the man, Adin Templin, suffering from a head injury. From the report:
Templin told police that he had been setting up his sleeping bag in Woodstock Park when he was hit in the back of the head by an unknown person. Officers checked the park and located a crime scene as well as a group of people who had knowledge of the assault. Officers also located two additional victims that were assaulted at Southeast 48th Avenue and Woodstock Boulevard, 34-year-old Stacey Eaton and 34-year-old Albert John Schenedler. None of the injuries were considered life-threatening.
Officers continued to investigate and were able to determine that 20-year-old Elijah Lawson and a 13-year-old male were involved in the assault.
Hurting homeless people: Never funny, never okay.
He told the Mercury, for a story we'll be publishing in our print edition this week, that he and an intermediary, Reverend Kate Lore of downtown's Occupy-friendly First Unitarian Church, reached an agreement with Mayor Sam Adams' office on a compromise that will let Whitten declare victory and resume eating.
Whitten didn't share details about the "proposal," as he put it, saying it was still being fine-tuned. But he said he was planning a news conference and "Big Eat" outside city hall for Thursday morning and would send out an invite on Wednesday.
His health has gradually worsened since he gave up the broth and juice that sustained him early on. But the decision also paid off. The concern over his well-being earned him meetings with city officials and also shined a media spotlight on his demands—especially waiving code-violation fines for Old Town homeless rest area Right 2 Dream Too. And a rally on Friday partly in his honor brought out close to 300 people, including mayoral candidates Charlie Hales and Jefferson Smith.
There had been persistent whispers that Whitten might end the strike, pressed by community members alarmed over his health. Adams’ office, also reached before press time, deferred to Whitten on whether any announcement would be forthcoming. But a city source has confirmed that an agreement is in place.
“We’re moving forward,” Whitten said. “It’ll be announced when we know what can be done.”
He managed to bring in both mayoral candidates, Jefferson Smith and Charlie Hales, neither of whom necessarily agreed with Whitten or said they'd deliver on his central demand: waiving code enforcement fines for Old Town homeless "rest area" Right 2 Dream Too. (Hales spent his time dropping easy crowd-pleasing lines about helping the unhoused but was greeted with shouts of "follow through"; Smith confessed he had doubts about Whitten's strike, got heckled, dropped an F-word in response, told people to stop shouting and start voting, and then spoke about income inequality).
Whitten also forced the current city council to respond and grapple with his request. And his presence had helped invigorate a months-old camping protest outside city hall.
"We have their attention, and we are beginning to alter their policies. We are close to a victory," Whitten, increasingly frail, read from prepared remarks. But instead of saying he was stopping, Whitten announced yet another rally: August 10—for the would-be 70th day of his strike. "There is so much visibility for this great cause right now."
Meanwhile, at the rally, Mary Nichols, one of the pillars of the city hall protest, announced a new plan for keeping the sidewalks in front of the building clean: shelves and some green storage lockers plopped in a parking spot along SW 4th.
"If you see that it looks messy," she said, "then help us.... We want one parking space." As Nichols noted, the city gives parking passes to dumpsters and for movie shoots. So why not to keep a protest tidy?
Update 2:40 PM: Interesting. Waiving the city's parking rules for a movie shoot requires a permit, which costs money. The city does allow permits for portable storage containers—probably the kind people might use in residential neighborhoods when moving into our out of a home. But those permits aren't allowed in metered spaces, like the ones along city hall. The rules are here. Of course, none of this is quite applicable to what city hall protesters are trying to do.
To see more photos, hit the jump.
Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the Portland Housing Bureau, has put out a statement addressing Cameron Whitten's hunger strike outside city hall, now on Day 49. Fish, who met privately with Whitten a few weeks ago in Terry Schrunk Plaza, has been publicly quiet about Whitten and his demands (relief for Right 2 Dream Too, a housing levy, and end to Portland's camping ban, etc.), many of which fall, at least partially, under Fish's domain.
While some of his colleagues have tried negotiating with Whitten, only to give up amid frustration (see: Dan Saltzman), Fish is taking a different tack. He's not getting in the weeds over Whitten's proposals. Instead, he's repeating a lot of what he told Whitten when they met. Basically, he says he wants Whitten to recognize and join the fight that nonprofits and volunteers and government works already are waging on behalf of the safety net and to get involved.
As many of you know, a young man named Cameron Whitten has been staging a hunger strike in front of City Hall for over a month to draw support for people experiencing homelessness in our community.
When I met with Cameron recently, I told him I admired his passion for the issues of housing and homelessness, and urged him to become involved in our community’s housing movement.
Every day in this city, a coalition of advocates drawn from government, non-profits, business, philanthropy and the faith community work hard to address our local housing crisis. Their efforts are marked by the quiet determination that no problem is unsolvable. They are the unsung heroes, dedicated to serving our community’s most vulnerable.
Cameron's hunger strike has shined a light on the plight of those who live on our streets. He reminds us that every one in our city deserves a safe and decent place to call home.
I hope Cameron will end his hunger strike, get his strength back, roll up his sleeves, and join us in our fight to end homelessness.
Whitten, who showed me urine analysis results today that pretty clearly indicate he's in starvation mode, isn't planning on stopping yet. He's even hoping to raise the stakes a bit. A rally in support of his strike is planned outside city hall at 4:30 tomorrow afternoon, and it'll be drawing big names like Charlie Hales and Jefferson Smith.
On the same day the Portland City Council approved another contract extension for Dignity Village, an attorney with the National Lawyers Guild sent Commissioners Dan Saltzman and Nick Fish a letter demanding that they offer the same legal status to Right 2 Dream Too—the "rest area" for the homeless that's been operating since October at NW 4th and Burnside.
The letter is signed by the lawyer, Mark Kramer, and R2D2's vice chairman and lead spokesman, Ibrahim Mubarak. It notes that state law says cities may set up a total of two "transitional housing campgrounds," and it asks for a meeting to start the process. It went to Fish because he oversees the housing bureau and to Saltzman because he oversees the city's code enforcement bureau.
The letter about R2D2 comes not only amid discussions about Dignity Village, but also during a high-profile hunger strike by former mayoral candidate Cameron Whitten, who's made the fate of the well-regarded rest area one of the central themes of his protest.
The city has declared the site an illegal recreational campground and has been fining its landlords since the winter. The landlords, Michael Wright and Dan Cossette, have so far made R2D2 come up with the scratch for the thousands in fines they've incurred. According to the letter, the landlords have been fined more than $6,000, with one of the co-owners giving the city $4,000 so far.
"Portland has been a leader in acknowledging and addressing the needs of the homeless," the letter says. "It has been creative in meeting the city's health and safety needs, while at the same time allowing for necessary programs to assist the homeless. We hope and trust that history continues and look forward to meeting with you and your staff to resolve this issue."
The letter also sees a model in the deal that led to the city's new car-camping experiment in church and nonprofit parking lots. In that case, Fish and Saltzman stopped short of making car-camping legal but did get council to approve a resolution directing the city's code enforcers not to enforce city code.
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