HOMELESS PEOPLE HOPING to barter for a meal or get connected to services at Sisters of the Road Café in Old Town will be greeted by a sign on the door saying the café is closed for the next three weeks. Management at the nonprofit decided to close the café on Friday, July 24, until Friday, August 21, after a four-year-old girl pricked her hand on a used syringe inside the building on Tuesday, July 21.
"This can't ever happen again," says Sisters founder Genny Nelson. "I mean, this was devastating for everybody."
A partner of a café employee was babysitting the child when the girl stuck her hand on the needle underneath a dining counter, says Nelson. The child was taken to Providence hospital and given immunizations but will continue to undergo tests for infection over the next six months—Sisters of the Road is paying for her care.
The café has experienced a growth in the number of used needles found on the premises and outside on the sidewalk over the last two years. There have also been increasing numbers of complaints about drug use, sidewalk obstructions, and aggressive dogs outside the café, says Central Precinct Commander Mike Reese—with 287 calls to the location in the last six months. "The feeling on Sisters' sidewalk is some days great and other days run for the hills," reads a notice posted in the café's window last week.
The City of Portland's chronic nuisance ordinance requires landlords of properties to be notified if more than three calls of a specific nature are received within a 30-day period, and Reese has discussed the possibility of giving Sisters a nuisance order with management at the café, whose landlord is nonprofit Central City Concern.
"We've probably reached that level a long time ago," says Reese, adding that he hopes the café can solve its problems without a chronic nuisance order, using similar techniques to those already employed by the Portland Rescue Mission on W Burnside and Transition Projects, Inc.—a homeless men's shelter at NW 5th and Glisan.
"Our goal is to work with the staff at Sisters," says Reese, who has instructed street crime officers to work with mounted patrol and bicycle police to begin enforcing the city's disorderly conduct statute against folks blocking the sidewalk outside the café.
Sisters of the Road was one of the most outspoken critics of the city's now-defunct sidewalk obstruction or sit-lie ordinance, and Sisters Executive Director Monica Beemer posted a printed email in the window of the café last week hinting that the police may now be employing a "be careful what you ask for strategy" when it comes to the sidewalk outside the café.
"The sidewalk obstruction ordinance was a much better tool," says Reese, adding that he is reluctant to escalate enforcement against the café. "They provide a very worthwhile and necessary service," he says. "And we want to do everything we can so that people who are there for a legitimate purpose can keep coming in safety."
Sisters staff met with customers to brainstorm about the problem and potential solutions last week, says Nelson, adding that forming relationships with drug dealers outside the building could be one way to reduce the problems.
"I think some people would say that's pie in the sky," Nelson says. "But we do have something to go on. When Mexican drug dealers were selling and using in the doorway, we literally served Mexican chocolate and got a mariachi band in one night. They weren't all willing to come in, but that had a huge impact—the point we made was not that you're bad, as a person. It's the behavior. And in fact those dealers left and did not come back."
Nelson says the closure of the café is in keeping with its history since she founded it in 1979. In the 1980s, Nelson stopped serving Sunday breakfasts after customers began using crack on Saturday nights, she says.
"Crack is a pretty mean drug when you come off it, and people were coming into the café and being belligerent, so again, we closed the café to take stock," she says. "Our process requires that we not just keep looking at it and going 'wow.' We have to look at these issues."
Nelson adds that there are systemic issues in Old Town that Sisters of the Road itself is not necessarily going to be able to solve. "Old Town is the grocery market for drugs for the whole metropolitan area and it has been for a long time," she says.
Some customers have been frustrated by the closure, Nelson says.
"But once they learned what was happening they were like, 'Oh, I get it,'" she continues. "People, I must say, have been really generous to us."