IT SEEMED LIKE a testament to progress, or maybe to an ever-thawing détente between Portland's homeless advocates and its downtown business community.
On Monday, April 16, the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) convened its second annual summit on downtown crime—an intimate roundup of prosecutors, police brass, security managers, government officials, social services providers, property managers, and business owners—and it held the thing in a tidy community room at Bud Clark Commons, the city's nearly year-old, multimillion-dollar homeless day center and shelter.
It's a worthy gesture. But if it was meant to strike a chord of hope and comity in a relationship that's long been, um, contentious, it rang a little hollow. Security and business types vastly outnumbered advocates. And most attendees didn't even need to mingle with any actual Bud Clark clients on their way in; the room had its own special entrance.
More concerning was the substance of the summit. The panel discussion I sat in on spent a lot of time on the budget cuts looming over the district attorney's office and police bureau, and how to punish people in spite of them, but relatively little time mentioning the doomsday cuts facing Portland's social safety net and how both kinds of cuts are related.
Instead, attendees twice asked why cops don't do things like automatically roust people sleeping in doorways. They also heard from Cliff Madison, the former cop who runs Portland Patrol Inc., the security company that puts the "Safe" in the PBA's "Clean and Safe" program. Madison crowed about efforts to purge the homeless from the underbelly of the Burnside Bridge and urged businesses to ask their private guards to be more aggressive in confronting people.
"They can do," Madison said, "whatever you ask them to do."
Police Chief Mike Reese was sanguine. He reminded the room that shelter space is limited and spoke correctly by noting that "arresting people just trying to find a place to sleep isn't the right thing to do."
But that came after Bob Day, commander of the Portland Police Bureau Central Precinct, had already laid bare the gap between rhetoric like that and the reality of what's happening on the ground. Day had already promised the room, ominously, that they'd soon be seeing way more enforcement of Portland's "sidewalk management" ordinance.
The city, Day explained, had only recently finished marking so-called free-speech zones on downtown sidewalks where sitting and lying down are permitted—finally freeing up more cops to nag violators without needing, as Day put it, "rulers or tape measures."
Day allowed that some of that push might amount to nothing more than an increase in "verbal warnings," but he didn't bother disguising a concern long held by police accountability and homelessness advocates: that cops will use the law as a pretext to target or harass people.
"Even folks who are sitting," Day said conspiratorially, with a smile, "it doesn't mean we can't contact them and ask how their day is going."
Which still, somehow, makes being homeless a crime, doesn't it?