NEARLY FOUR YEARS after Portland's anti-homeless "sit-lie" sidewalk ordinance was declared unconstitutional, the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) is asking Oregon lawmakers to help bring it back to life.
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.
"I ruled that [the sit-lie law] is preempted by state law," Bushong said at the time. "It prohibits conduct permitted by state law, and that's not permitted under article 11, section two of our Oregon Constitution."
The rationale for the bill makes for some odd positioning. Lobbyists like the PBA normally cling tightly to the concept of "preemption"—using it to fight off otherwise popular measures like cigarette taxes.
But after more than three years of failing to sweep Portland's sidewalks of people who allegedly upset shoppers from the suburbs, the PBA appears to be making an exception. And activists are watching warily.
"We work with a range of downtown businesses and fully understand the realities of aggressive behavior when it comes to sidewalks. We're not wearing rose-colored glasses," Street Roots Director Israel Bayer says. "But the answer isn't to ban people from public spaces. Draconian approaches to regulating sidewalks has never been the answer. This bill is not the answer."
As of press time, PBA spokeswoman Megan Doern failed to return a message from the Mercury seeking comment. But in interviews with other outlets in recent days, she offered varying rationales.
In Street Roots, whose vendors are homeless and support themselves selling papers on city sidewalks, Doern said the PBA merely hopes to clarify confusing case law. But in the Portland Business Journal, which first broke news of the bill, she was more pointed.
"We continue to get complaints from business owners and employees and everyone downtown," she said. "It's always the number one business concern downtown."
The PBA has been making more and more noise about homelessness over the past year—if seldom deigning to address the problems that cause and perpetuate it. At its downtown summit in April 2012, it set a clear tone for its current direction: a renewed focus on the homeless, whether they're breaking laws or not.
It has agitated against the camping that's been happening for more than a year on the curb in front of Portland City Hall. It took on Commissioner Nick Fish when he pushed through a pilot project for car-camping in church parking lots. Late last year, in a letter to city council, the PBA offered unsubstantiated claims that Right 2 Dream Too was causing a crime spike. And it also tried to make sidewalks an issue in Commissioner Amanda Fritz's reelection race against ex-State Representative Mary Nolan.
"Advocating for laws that criminalize people creates a public debate about the deserving versus the undeserving poor that stalls progress and hurts our entire region," says Street Roots' Bayer. "We should be spending our time collectively developing ongoing resources for housing."
Fritz declined to comment for this story despite repeated requests. She oversees the city's current sidewalk management plan, a compromise that designates a free-speech zone along the curb where anyone can sit down with their stuff (so long as it's in arm's reach) for however long and whenever they want to.
She had been leading meetings of a sidewalk advisory working group, but her office confirmed that those meetings had stopped several months ago. The city's current sidewalk law is seen as an improvement over the sit-lie law—widely seen as a naked attempt to crack down on the homeless. And those meetings were a place to discuss lingering concerns over enforcement.
Fritz wasn't the only official who didn't seem to want to comment. The Portland Police Bureau seized on the fact that Portland City Council hadn't included the bill on its state legislative agenda.
"I checked with the city on the proposed legislation," says Sergeant Pete Simpson, the police bureau's lead spokesman. "And since they have not taken a position on the bill, we would not be able to comment one way or the other."
But most disturbing was what happened when the Mercury tried to find out what plans the House Judiciary Committee had for the bill it proposed. Would it move on? Or would it be left to quietly wither?
A staffer for the committee's chairman, Jeff Barker, phoned back and suggested I direct my questions at somebody else: Bernie Bottomly, the PBA's vice president for government affairs.
"The fact that the state sent you right to Bernie Bottomly," says Patrick Nolen, a veteran of the sit-lie fight and longtime activist on homelessness issues, "is incredibly fucked up."