- Photographs by Denis C. Theriault
- Mayor Charlie Hales, right, with Police Chief Mike Reese, left, and Central Precinct Commander Bob Day.
"This is not about homelessness," Hales tried to explain. "It's about lawlessness."
That was about Hales' answer when I asked him why the Portland Housing Bureau and Housing Commissioner Dan Saltzman weren't present at the press conference, where Police Chief Mike Reese and Central Precinct Commander Bob Day confirmed that no arrests were made in a second day of sweeps that saw formerly teeming "hotspots" like SW 4th and Madison cleared out. (Even if everyone merely moved into Terry Schrunk Plaza.)
"We're not going to wait until homelessness is solved to start working on lawlessness," he said. "Or else we'll wait a very long time."
That was his answer later on when the Oregonian again asked where Saltzman was.
"We're not here to talk about a housing program," he said.
Because this was about sidewalks and not homelessness, he said, it was better to have cops at his side and not the policy wonks and social services providers he swore were trailing behind the cops who were working the sweeps, in downtown and under overpasses and bridges in Northwest and the inner East Side. Hales repeatedly stressed that campers who set up shop on public sidewalks—and who weren't "low-impact," moving about during the day before returning to a safe spot at night with a bed roll—were violating the social contract governing a "civil" society.
But if Hales wanted to keep the focus on solely on public safety, the crowd made that impossible.
Hales has taken on a subject that confounded his predecessors—where every step and statement is either judged as too insensitive or too lenient. He admitted, and so did Reese and Day, that the city needed to "do better" because shelter space is limited. Right 2 Dream Too spokesman Ibrahim Mubarak pressed him on whether he supported the Old Town rest area's mission, despite it facing thousands in code violation fines.
"I'm very impressed with what R2DToo has done," Hales says, backing Commissioner Amanda Fritz's efforts to find a new home for the site since taking over code enforcement responsibilities, a push first reported by the Mercury.
Hales also was pushed about why he wasn't doing more to find land for a second Dignity Village (it's hard to find land, he says) and whether he supported a Homeless Bill of Rights (haven't seen it, he says).
So he talked about his budget, which fully funded local cash for safety net programs. And he shouted out Nick Fish, former housing commissioner. He also tried to talk up Saltzman, who's been notably invisible since Hales decided to trumpet not just sidewalks and public safety, which fall under his role as police commissioner, but also homelessness itself, firmly in Saltzman's two-month-old portfolio.
Leadership in city hall has been a question for some advocates, wondering whether someone would step up as a cheerleader for their needs. That Hales is moving first so visibly on enforcement has troubled some observers.
Asked where Saltzman's been on these issues, Street Roots' Israel Bayer told me "It's unclear."
"They're trying to get up to speed on very complex issues that we're trying to find answers for," says Bayer. "It's unclear who is leading the charge over there. Is it Charlie? Is it Dan? Is it a collective group of commissioners?"
Meanwhile, the work continues.
"Street Roots will continue to work with partners to support individuals experiencing homelessness," says Bayer. "Regardless of people's circumstances, everyone deserves a safe place to call home."
Not that the crackdown, if you want to call it that, hasn't become the defining image of Hales' approach to the issue. It's no secret Hales agreed with the Portland Business Alliance's call for sidewalk enforcement and it raises the question of whether all the rigmarole cops are resorting to will become grounds for advocating in Salem for a new sit-lie bill.
Hales says the sweeps will likely expand from Central Precinct and mentioned discussions with TriMet. But he and Reese took pains to say, once again, that low-impact campers would be tolerated. Reese suggested getting private property owners' permission and to "pick up after yourself."
Big camps, Reese says, are "not sustainable, they're not safe, and they're not sanitary."
Hales' spokesman, Dana Haynes, says DAs told the cops they'll need to record someone in one spot all day with a lot of stuff for maybe two to four days, and warn them to move, before charging them with interfering with a police officer. More days makes a charge easier to prosecute in court. Haynes says the hope is to add some teeth to punish those who don't get the message otherwise.
Day says cops will still use "discretion" when deciding what to track and sweep and that complaints will determine where attention is directed. He says people might think city hall's protest was broken up for political reasons, but that complaints were the driving factor. He also tried to put the number of arrests in context, saying four were for camping of the five so far, out of 1,700-plus people sleeping outside. (Never mind that the arrests are targeting a smaller subset of people, just in Central Precinct.)
"I'm not about arrests," he says.
Art Rios, an advocate with R2DToo, mentioned Hales' ongoing advisory meetings with cops, the PBA, approved providers like JOIN, Central City Concern, and the PBA-affiliated Transition Projects Inc. When, he asked, will Hales invite the homeless in for advice?
Hales said he's always looking for new partners.
Rios was skeptical.
"I'm waiting for my email."