Booted Camp? 

Hales' City Hall Sweep Hits a Bump

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MAYOR CHARLIE HALES seemed pretty definitive when standing in front of reporters outside his office on Monday, July 22, talking about the few dozen people camping outside city hall in protest over Portland's homelessness policies.

"Tomorrow," he said, before a police commander softened that to "sometime this week," cops and power-washers would descend on the sidewalk along SW 4th and drive the campers away—presumably for good.

"This building is owned by 600,000 people," Hales said, lamenting that although city employees and citizens expect to be safe on their way into the headquarters of city government, reports of fights and drugs and sex mean the protest has "gotten to the point where that's no longer true."

Just like Hales promised, the power-washers really did come out the morning of Tuesday, July 23, with county inmates picking up whatever property was left behind. And days before, the city posted signs declaring all the sidewalks around city hall a "high-pedestrian" zone—severely limiting where people can sit. But as for Hales' vision of a city hall entrance full of food carts—freed from the daily reminder of poverty and mental illness?

That might be wishful thinking.

Later Monday, under questioning first from the Mercury and then the Oregonian, Hales' office had to backtrack about the presumed effect of the pedestrian zone, the biggest tool in Hales' cherished tool belt.

That designation, like all the pieces of Portland's 2010 sidewalk management ordinance, only applies from 7 am to 9 pm. Meaning, after the soap and water has dried from the sidewalk, there's nothing to keep participants in the Occupy-inflected protest from coming back. And sleeping.

"After 9 pm, and until 7 am, you can roll out a sleeping bag and sleep," according to a clarification emailed by Hales' spokesman, Dana Haynes. "At 7 am, that person will have to become a pedestrian again. The city won't be asking you to move along, just not be lying down in violation of the sidewalk-use code."

Curiously, that wasn't the only thing Hales and Central Precinct Commander Bob Day (in another high-profile appearance beside the mayor) didn't have straight at the big news conference on Monday.

Both men bandied about a seemingly distressing stat to justify the sweep: 113 "calls for service" outside city hall in 180 days. But Day, when the Mercury asked, said he didn't know how many of those calls actually involved crimes or violations. Some, he acknowledged, might have been mere observational reports or hits on the cops' computer-dispatch system.

Hales also didn't detail the "threshold" used to determine which city blocks are "high-pedestrian" zones and, thus, qualify for an exemption from the sidewalk ordinance's promise of a "free speech" zone along the curb. His office has yet to reply to a request for those standards and an explanation of how city hall's sidewalks meet them.

As a point of history, Hales' predecessor, Sam Adams, already gave most of the sidewalks around city hall that designation—during a similar flare-up in tensions last year that also brought out the cops and power-washers. But Adams didn't sweep the camp, asking cops, instead, to patrol more regularly to cut down on crimes and litter.

Hales, before the sidewalk law thwarted him, was nursing a more forceful approach. Haynes told the Mercury after the news conference that Hales also wants to explore sticking food carts in the city hall plaza, alongside the organic garden Adams championed.

Maybe to make room for those carts, workers also took out a religious shrine, aimed at changing camping policy that's been up in the plaza since December 2011. That shrine could return if it gets a permit, under new rules drafted for city hall—but it might be competing with carts if it applies for one.

And what about the sidewalk law that Hales ran up against? He tacitly supported the Portland Business Alliance's efforts this year to bring back a proper sit-lie law, sources say. He may do so explicitly next time.

"We're going to enforce the laws we have," Hales says, "and talk later about the laws we can change."

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