IN PORTLAND, even the sidewalks are controversial. The city's humble sidewalks are pedestrian thoroughfares, sure, but they're also legally protected avenues for free speech.
For years, city council and the Portland Business Alliance backed the "Sit-Lie" law, a ban on sitting or lying on downtown streets that primarily targeted homeless people. During that law's first 14 months on the books, 78 percent of the people cited or warned for blocking the sidewalk were homeless. In 2009, a judge ruled that the law was unconstitutional, arguing that people have a right to use the sidewalk and listening to civil rights lawyers who noted the city never cited businesses whose signs impinged on the public space ["Sit-Lie Dies," News, July 2, 2009].
However, after the death of the disliked law, city concerns lingered about the ability of pedestrians, especially people with disabilities, to use the sidewalk easily.
In spring of 2010, Mayor Sam Adams drafted a new "Sidewalk Management Plan" that bans sitting (or lying, loafing, or banjo playing) on an eight-foot swath of the sidewalk closest to businesses but does allow it on the curb.
Civil rights advocates feared the new plan would be enforced much like the old—becoming a way to shuffle homeless people off downtown streets.
City statistics obtained by the Mercury last week show that the majority of warnings and citations in the first 14 months of the law's enforcement have, in fact, gone to homeless people. The average citation was $134—a serious chunk of change for someone living on the streets.
But in 2011, the police dramatically increased the number of written warnings handed out about sidewalk obstructions. Police also have issued warnings to a larger share of non-homeless people. Central Precinct Lieutenant Michael Marshman says that during the first six months of the new law, police tried to warn people informally, talking to them instead of writing them up. After that, officers decided to step up the written warnings.
"Ultimately the goal is not to write a bunch of citations," says Marshman. "It's education."
Michael Moore, a board member of homeless advocacy nonprofit Sisters of the Road, says some homeless people still feel targeted under the law but that complaints have mostly centered on rude behavior from some police officers.
"With this, it often comes down to the behavior of the individual officers," says Moore. "Some explain the law and offer options, like where else someone can sit, and some don't."
The city plans to at some point install "medallions" marking the pedestrian zone on downtown sidewalks, particularly on skinny, busy sidewalks like that on West Burnside.