For the past few years, homeless advocates and free speech protectors have been on high alert to prevent such a sit-lie ordinance. Last winter, the mayor tried to quietly implement these revisions that provide police with more power to roust street-sitters and panhandlers. In January, however, a diligent member of the Oregon Law Center spotted the proposed changes on city council's website. His discovery and subsequent protests from the ACLU forced city council to permit public forums on the matter before such changes could be adopted. Yet, in spite of seeming to welcome an open debate on Friday, Mayor Katz took an abrupt about-face.
"We're really troubled by it," says Andrea Meyer who works with Oregon's ACLU. "It gives utter discretion to law enforcement to target certain individuals." Effectively, explains Meyer, a person may not sit or stand stationary within six feet of another. "If you're chatting with a friend or waiting for a bus, you're violating (the sit-lie ordinance)," continues Meyer. In spite of the widely cast net, free speech advocates believe that the ordinance will be used specifically to harass homeless street-sitters--and not retail shoppers waiting for the new streetcar.
From Seattle to Santa Cruz, such sit-lie ordinances have been central to debates at how to handle conflicts between downtown foot traffic and the likes of the homeless and street musicians. Just last week in Santa Cruz--well known for being a boardwalk teeming with jugglers and musicians--the city council enacted a sit-lie ordinance. For the once beatnik town, those changes resulted from a series of tortured and public soul-searching roundtable discussions.
But in Portland, advocates are not only angered by the changes, but by the way these changes came about. "Look at who was there," says Meyer, referring to the meeting where Mayor Katz announced the decision. In attendance were representatives from the police, the Portland Business Alliance, the district attorney and the city attorney. Homeless advocates and the ACLU say they were not properly informed about the meeting. (The mayor's press agent, Sarah Bott, blamed a glitch in her e-mail for failing to notify the Mercury.)
Even worse, at the mayor's press conference, Katz pointed especially to Sisters of the Road Café--a long established program for the city's homeless--as partners in the process. But Genny Nelson with Sisters contends that the mayor is twisting the truth. By late Friday afternoon, Nelson was distributing a press release stating, "mayor sidesteps process; enacts sit-lie-stand law." They also held their own press conference to express their displeasure.
"As of last week, I thought we were looking at aggressive harassment [by panhandlers]," explains Nelson, who has attended several roundtable discussions about the sit-lie rules. "We knew nothing about [the enactment of changes]. By the time we arrived [at the press conference], it was all over. I'm like, 'wait a minute.'" After a slight pauses, she adds, "I am hugely disappointed and disgusted."
Nelson believes that city council should focus their attention on the root causes of homelessness--not mild inconveniences for downtown shoppers. "As a city, we're placing our attention on these low-level nuisances, as if to say, 'here's our real problem.'" Nelson points out that the city only sponsors shelter space for 300 men and women, when there are an estimated 1600 homeless in Portland. Moreover, the shelters are closed from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., forcing homeless people to take their belongings and wander the city's streets. "This is a law that criminalizes people without access," concludes Nelson.
In spite of the contentious day on Friday, Nelson is not ready to give up on city council. Although spurned, she plans to continue to work with city council and to lobby against the wide-reaching rules. "Sisters' whole purpose is to build relationships," she explains. "You bet we'll be back at the table."