The sit/lie law was due to sunset this month until City Commissioner Amanda Fritz extended it for six months so that the community could jaw more on the idea. While Fritz gets the city's act together, homeless activist Patrick Nolen has decided to take the outreach effort to the streets with his new project, Soapbox Under The Bridge.
I don't buy Commissioner Fritz's outreach effort, personally, because I don't believe it's appropriate to discuss depriving people of their civil rights while continuing to do so. Still, Fritz is holding a planning meeting for her new outreach effort this Thursday evening, 5:30, in the Pettygrove room at City Hall. I plan to be there.
Meanwhile Nolen isn't waiting around to see what the city does, by way of outreach.
Far from being discouraged, Nolen has been continuing his organizing activities around the city's sit/lie and anti-camping laws since his ugly departure from Sisters of the Road earlier this year.
"This is where the interface between city policies and human beings is happening," he says, "so we've decided to outreach to the homeless community on their turf and find out how they feel about the sit/lie and anti-camping ordinances." The idea is simple: Give homeless people a voice on the same street corners where they're routinely being denied their rights:
Yesterday afternoon's soapbox event at the corner of SW 9th and Stark was the fifth so far around the city. Timed to coincide with the weekly feed at Potluck in the Park, Nolen was pleased with the turnout and the sentiment of the folks who spoke. "Every now and then we get someone angry enough to curse a bit, but most of the time people are righteously upset and want a solution to the problem, rather than just bitching about it," he says.
"SAFE means I feel supported, rested, not in the middle of turmoil, it's the opposite of war," said activist Katie "Stoop" Nilson—the first soapboxer to speak. "I don't think the city's SAFE [Street Access For Everyone] committee means that at all." The SAFE group came up with the sit/lie law.
"Life is as beautiful as it may be," said Tiny, a 6'8" African American homeless man with an ironic nickname. "But us homeless people are out here and we really truly do need help. We are out here struggling."
Tiny got a big cheer from the 60-or-so homeless people gathered to listen.
"In Africa, you can sleep anywhere you want if you're homeless," said a homeless man named Yasim. "But in this country, with all these rules, it's more like apartheid."
"I'm a veteran," said a man named Ben who also goes by Grandpa. "I fought for the right for people to be able to sit, stand, sleep, walk, or whatever on the sidewalk. We want our constitution back."
"These power trip idiots won't even let us sleep in their parks," said a homeless woman named Stormy (pictured, above). "They have so many parks, why can't they just pick one of them and let us sleep in it?"
I think that question was directed at homeless commissioner Nick Fish, who also oversees the parks bureau. Fish, a former civil rights attorney, has been studiously tight-lipped about the civil rights impacts of the sit/lie law since before his election, preferring instead to emphasize his other efforts on behalf of the homeless. He is up for reelection next year.
Someone sang the national anthem, then a man named White Eagle talked about a police officer allegedly spitting at his friend earlier yesterday morning. "Tell them all there's a new sheriff in town," he said. "That's what we've got to do."
As I walked off up the street I saw an officer working for rent-a-cop firm Portland Patrol inc riding down SW 9th toward the event. I almost turned around to see if he might target the soapbox event for obstructing the sidewalk, then I realized even a rent-a-cop wouldn't be that stupid.