OVER THE PAST two weeks, a makeshift homeless encampment has been growing in front of city hall. Kicking off on Friday, April 25, a few men and women who'd been "swept" out from under the Burnside Bridge—where they usually slept—set up camp on the sidewalk, against city hall's cement balustrade.
They gathered there to protest several city issues, including the camping ban, the sit-lie law, and the lack of affordable housing. Because it's a constitutionally protected protest, police haven't cleared the sidewalk.
Instead, the protest has grown. By Sunday night, May 4, 70 protesters were camping out. The next morning, TV crews were there to document the protest. Meanwhile, Monica Goracke of the Oregon Law Center walked among the protesters offering legal advice.
"I've been told people here have had their stuff destroyed and that the police are carrying out camping sweeps without proper notice," Goracke said. "I think the city's general policies around camping and sweeping need to be addressed."
Protester Larry Reynolds, a 10-year Army veteran who along with his younger brother Duane has been a central figure in the protests, was out with a notepad asking people to write down their protest goals.
"The main issue has been affordable housing," he says. "But we want the city to repeal the sit-lie and the camping ordinances."
The Mercury asked three protesters for their stories.
Amber Baker, 24, from Portland, has been homeless since she was 16. She says that she originally fled an abusive stepfather, then she was married to an abusive husband for three years, who is now in jail for domestic abuse. Baker, who described herself as "mentally retarded," draws a $623 social security check once a month, but it's not enough to afford an apartment.
Shaggy Simpson, 25, from New Jersey, came back to this country after three years of military service in Iraq in 2005. He says he witnessed several big explosions and multiple deaths over there; since his return, he's bounced in and out of housing.
"I'm still trying to get it together," he says.
Trevor Oranday, 28, is from Roseville, California. He broke his heel working construction there just before Christmas, became homeless, and is now in Portland, looking for work. "I was told to come down here [to the protest] by the local police," he laughs.
Responsibility for satisfying the protesters' demands—or otherwise figuring out how to end the protest—falls to Mayor Tom Potter, as he's the head of the police bureau that's responsible for the sweeps, and the temporary commissioner in charge of housing, following Erik Sten's departure. (He also heads up the city's facilities department, which oversees city hall property.) On April 30, Potter sent a letter to city employees, explaining the situation.
"As long as the entrance to city hall is not blocked and conditions remain sanitary and safe, they have a right to be here and to make their concerns known," Potter wrote. "We do not know how long the protest will continue." He outlined the "steps the city is taking both immediately and short term," like interviewing the protesters "so we will have real data on their specific circumstances, needs, and concerns," allocating money to reopen temporary winter shelters (which had closed at the end of March), and "continuing to explore strategies and alternatives to increase the utilization of rental vouchers."
As Potter was speaking up from inside city hall, several candidates who'd like a seat on the city council weighed in. The two candidates leading the race to replace Sten as housing commissioner went toe to toe on the issue.
Jim Middaugh issued a statement just hours after Potter's, saying "we need bold leadership to revamp our local housing programs to ensure they prioritize investments in those most in need. Until housing is available we may need to rethink enforcement of our anti-camping ordinance." He also called on the city to "find or create 1,000 new units of housing."
Middaugh's opponent, Nick Fish, shot back: "Jim was chief of staff to Commissioner Sten. The question I have for him is, what steps did he take then to advance his call for 1,000 new units of housing for the homeless?" he told the Mercury. "I'm as committed as anyone to solving chronic homelessness and providing safe and decent affordable housing for all, but what leadership steps did he take a month ago to address this problem? What he appears to be doing now is shifting the blame to Mayor Potter for his own failure."
In response to Fish's criticism, Middaugh said, "There's a fundamental misunderstanding of the issues at this point. The response needs to be we need to change the way we do police sweeps of homeless camps until there's more capacity."
In another city council race, candidate Jeff Bissonnette stopped by to chat with the protesters on Wednesday night, April 30. He ended up spending the night. The homeless protesters "fixed me up," says Bissonnette, who "didn't really come prepared to stay." They gave him cardboard, a sleeping bag, and a blanket.
"What they're asking for is real solutions. That's precisely the thing they ought to be asking and pushing for, and it's not something that is readily deliverable within a week or within a couple of days," Bissonnette says. If he were on the city council, "I'd be in dialogues with these folks to get a solution together. The immediate solution might be short term, but if they saw there was a long-term solution, that would give most folks stability within a matter of a few months, that might move the discussion along."
On Monday afternoon, May 5, Potter tried to start a dialogue of his own, meeting in his office with Reynolds and three other protesters. The meeting, which included Central Precinct Commander Mike Reese and Potter's director of public safety policy Maria Rubio, was closed to the press—Potter's chief spokesperson John Doussard said it would be "more honest" if people weren't "grandstanding."
But at 4:20 pm, Reynolds emerged disappointed. Potter had told the group he would not revoke the camping ordinance or sit-lie ordinance because they were "useful tools the city uses to protect public safety," according to Reynolds. Instead, Potter talked about the city's 10-year plan to end homelessness.
"His final statement was that, 'We've told you what we're doing, if that's not enough, we're giving up'," Reynolds said. "And I told him, you may be giving up, buddy, but I'm not."
Reynolds went outside to tell his fellow protesters what had happened. Within 10 minutes, all of them were shouting, "Hell no! We won't go!" and some were waiving their fists up at the mayor's office, as the TV cameras continued to roll.
"I don't think Tom Potter or the city ever feels that the homeless problem is one you give up on," says Doussard, pointing to the 10-year plan as an example of the city's commitment. Space in a women's shelter opened several days ago, and 90 beds from the Salvation Army will open later this week or early next, possibly with space for couples, Doussard adds.
But with the camping issue at the crux of the protest, and Potter refusing to budge on it, will the protest keep going regardless of how much shelter space the city provides?
"I can't speak for the protesters," Doussard says. "We're working with lots of folks. I think we're making some headway."