CHAMPIONS for the homeless don't often find cause to gush about Portland cops.
But there they were, on Tuesday, November 18—three of this city's most stalwart advocates talking up the Portland Police Bureau during a city council work session.
"In the 15 years that I've been doing this work in different urban environments, this is the best program that we've seen," Street Roots Director Israel Bayer said of foot patrols the bureau's Central Precinct began this spring.
"It's like having a whole other team of street outreach workers out there," said Dennis Lundberg of Janus Youth Programs.
"The approach is really good," said JOIN Director Marc Jolin. "It's going to make a world of difference."
Those fuzzy feelings are well earned. The walking beats—carried out by a small team of 10 specially chosen officers—have fanned out across downtown and along SE Hawthorne with an eye toward building relationships. Cops say they're trying to engage with people instead of just issuing tickets or making arrests. It's an approach advocates have been pushing for years, and a welcome olive branch in a year when cops also spent time arresting homeless people for camping and certain nuisance crimes ["Can't Sleep Here," News, July 30].
But some things never change.
Even as some officers show the city's destitute a softer side, the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) is looking to reduce the places where they can rest. Through its Clean & Safe program, the PBA is pressing for a nearly four-fold increase in the select areas where sitting on the sidewalk is largely prohibited—from roughly 30 block faces downtown to almost 120.
The PBA won't get most of its wish. But documents obtained by the Mercury show the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) is seriously entertaining enrolling an additional 33 block faces as pedestrian zones, more than doubling the current number.
Blocks under consideration include swaths along the MAX tracks on SW Morrison and SW Yamhill, along with sidewalks abutting Director Park, Powell's, and the Safeway at SW 10th and Jefferson.
Decisions could be made as early as next year, PBOT says, and don't require any input from elected leaders. Under Portland's sidewalk management plan, the choice falls to PBOT Director Leah Treat.
"What we're an advocate for is being able to expand the ability for police, and frankly the city, to use tools that enforce behaviors on the streets," Ty Barker, chair of the Clean & Safe program, told city council on November 18. "We still feel all the tools need to be in the tool chest."
Portland's current sidewalk law was established in 2010, not long after a Multnomah County judge ruled the city's controversial "sit-lie" policy unconstitutional. Under the law, downtown sidewalks are reserved mainly for pedestrians, with sitting permitted in a ribbon of pavement along the curb. But for sidewalks that are too narrow or present other safety risks, PBOT can eliminate that ribbon, making it illegal to sit or lie down from 7 am to 9 pm.
The tactic generated controversy last summer, when Mayor Charlie Hales designated sidewalks outside of city hall as pedestrian-only zones, in an attempt to clear out a clutch of people protesting Portland's anti-camping law ["Booted Camp?" News, July 24, 2013].
The move worked, but only in the narrowest sense. It merely pushed people across the street.
"There are less people around city hall, but there are more people around Lownsdale and Chapman [Squares]," Commissioner Nick Fish said at the recent city council session. "There's a cause and effect that we often see, and sometimes it's displacement."
That's fine with the PBA, Barker essentially told city council, so long as people are moved from desirable, busy corridors like those near Pioneer Courthouse Square and Pioneer Place Mall.
"They're still here in the city," Barker said. "Just because they're not around city hall doesn't mean they're not in the city of Portland. What we're looking for is the ability to prevent collective behaviors that are negative."
Neither the PBA nor Barker returned calls asking about the sidewalk request by press time.
The majority of the PBA's 47 individual suggestions were deemed ineligible by PBOT, since they had no grounding in the safety factors engineers consider when mulling over a pedestrian-only designation. Those include sidewalks adjacent to high-speed traffic or light rail, walkways near food cart pods, and places with especially high volumes of foot traffic.
"The high-pedestrian zone designation has been used as a safety measure to protect people who might, for example, be pushed into an oncoming MAX train," Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick said.
"It's not something we use to say, 'This is a high pedestrian zone, therefore people can't sit on the sidewalk.'"
Still, internal documents show PBOT thinks 15 of the requests are at least partially feasible. (Not all of the requests come from the PBA. Organizations like Union Gospel Mission and Mercy Corps have made small requests.)
The findings will head to a mayoral commission on homelessness issues in January, before landing at Treat's desk for a final decision, says Christine Leon, the PBOT manager overseeing the process.
Advocates and at least one city commissioner are calling for more transparency and public input.
"The way we decided the other zones was to have a group that included people living outside," said Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who pointed out that merely displacing homeless people doesn't solve anything. "That would be the best way moving forward."
And Street Roots' Bayer, pleased enough with some of the city's other efforts, sees nothing but backsliding in the push for more restrictions. It would be "very unfortunate," he says, if new progress were undermined by tougher restrictions.
"When you fight over sidewalks," he says, "you don't get to real solutions."
More forceful is Becky Straus, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon. She's dubious that enough serious safety risks exist to warrant such a dramatic expansion of Portland's pedestrian-only areas.
"The sidewalks are for everyone," Straus says. "They're not just for the PBA's holiday shoppers."