So far there are 104 people in the Facebook group against the renewal of the city's sit/lie law since the mayor's office announced yesterday that it plans to have another crack at it. Meanwhile there's a guest opinion in this morning's Oregonian on the issue by Katie Gordon and Dennise Keitges. "One in their 50s, one in their 30s," says the introduction, although it's not clear why that's important, or which is which:
Katie: As a downtown office worker for a law firm in Pioneer Tower, one of my duties is running errands in the downtown core. I can't walk a single block without being approached by a panhandler, the Mercy Core/Green Peace people, or one of the many homeless people asking for money. The latter in particular have become very aggressive.
I was stunned when the city's "sit-lie" ordinance was struck down. I don't feel safe doing my regular work routine downtown any longer. I take the bus home in the evenings stressed and ridden with anxiety. Not only did striking down the sit-lie ordinance bring more homeless panhandlers into downtown, but now I sometimes literally have to step over them on the sidewalks. Downtown has become filthy and smelly. And I for one would be embarrassed to have anyone visit our city.
Dennise: I've worked for a law firm in Pioneer Tower for over three years now. When I first started working downtown I used to love taking MAX to and from work, my noontime walks, and just working in the heart of the city. Now I walk (and don't even get me started on the safety of pedestrians in this city; walking is taking your life in your hands) to and from work — sun, rain and snow, even in the worst possible weather — just to avoid getting on MAX. My lunchtime walks have become a game of dodge-the-panhandlers-homeless-people-and-Mercy Corp/Green Peace. Don't even think about taking your afternoon break outside without being asked at least twice for money or cigarettes. Sure, you can pretend to be on the phone when approached by any of these individuals, but it will do you no good.
The city put these lovely benches in front of our building, but don't think you'll actually be able to use one. They have become the hangout spot for the panhandlers and just plain hoodlums. Oh, sure, there are occasional sting operations to clean up the square, but where are all these people going? To hang out in the new bus mall in front of my building.
I'm so stressed, tense and anxiety-ridden at the end of the day that by the time I unwind, it's time to get up and do it all over again.
All we are saying here is let's rethink the sit-lie ordinance, and let's clean up this city and make it a place you want to be in not a place you want to avoid.
I can only offer a different perspective in response. As someone who lives and works in the city's downtown core, I must say that I don't share their stress or anxiety about the situation, despite not being immune from the occasional need to take a tranquilizer to calm down. Indeed, the idea that the city plans to "rethink" the unconstitutional ordinance has engendered more stress and anxiety for me than any of the homeless people I've encountered down there. How many times do we need to be told by judges that this is unconstitutional, period?
I have not noticed homeless panhandlers becoming more aggressive. I was not stunned when the law was "struck down" by a judge, because it's unconstitutional, and that is what I would expect a judge to do with any unconstitutional law. Also personally I would be prouder having my friends and relatives visit this obscure part of the Northwest knowing that our city government knows how to follow not only the letter but the spirit of the law. Instead, we appear to be on the verge of enacting another version of the sit/lie, gambling only that it will probably take another year for another judge to strike it down as unconstitutional. It makes me ashamed of our city. It makes me want to tell my friends and family not to bother swinging through. We can meet them in New Jersey or something—where at least the government corruption is blatant enough to be obvious to everyone.
I'm also struck by how much the supposed problem is being over-stated. One would think that over the last two months, downtown had been overtaken by triffids. As it is, I have hardly noticed any change—and I live a block from Pioneer Square and walk through it probably three or four times a day. This is a public relations push. I invite you to see through it. Let's hold sidewalk picnics downtown and reclaim the streets from these "hoodlums," if necessary. Make picnic! Not war.
If my family or friends have had one observation about Portland when they have visited over the last three years, it's had nothing to do with the number of homeless, or how aggressive they were. It was, quite simply, that this city doesn't seem to offer many jobs. Let's enforce our existing laws against people who harass and menace our citizens—hell, we could hire a few more police officers to do it, and we'd be killing two birds—and put our civic energy into the jobs issue, before it's too late.
Update, 3:35 pm: The Facebook group against the sit/lie law is proposing that Portlanders protest the taking up of downtown sidewalks by aggressive panhandlers and the like by having their own sidewalk picnics on Monday, between 12:00 and 1:00. Date: Monday, August 24, 2009 Time: 12:00pm - 1:00pm Location: The nearest bench or sidewalk to your office:
Grab your lunch and go outside and eat your lunch. Maybe use the bench near your office or place of work. Or if you aren't working or looking for work then take the time to enjoy the day downtown. Engage in random social interactions with strangers downtown. If someone asks you for change, food, beer, or the like, politely say "Sorry, can't help you today."
If you're planning such a picnic, let us know! Send pictures. We'd like to document your event.
Update, 3:44 pm: Oregonlive Old Town blogger Larry Norton has some interesting thoughts on hate and violence against homeless people here, particularly when it comes to reporting on the issue. Hoyt Architects has also just released more designs for the new Resource Access Center for the homeless in Old Town, which I've photographed on the floor of homeless commissioner Nick Fish's office, and included after the jump for your interest.