Mayor Tom Potter's sit-lie committee has failed to build a single new restroom in downtown Portland, reneging on its promise to make more bathrooms available for the homeless before banning them from sitting or lying on the sidewalk. The sit-lie ordinance is scheduled to go into effect on Saturday, June 9.
But as we went to press, City Commissioner Randy Leonard—the only commissioner to vote "no" on the original ordinance—was writing to the rest of council asking them to delay enforcement of the law until the service aspects of the mayor's ordinance are in place.
"I'm assuming council would not have supported this ordinance if they had known it would be enforced with none of the attendant compromises in place," he told the Mercury on Tuesday, June 5. "I would be embarrassed if this was what we had listened to before voting on the ordinance, and yet the service aspects are not in place. So I am hoping the response from all of council [to the letter] will be an embarrassed 'yes' to delaying enforcement."
The stalling on new bathrooms means the mayor's Street Access for Everyone (SAFE) oversight committee has now compromised on each of the three service measures it agreed to enact before the law could be enforced—all of which have been widely touted by the mayor's office as political justification for the new sit-lie law.
On top of no new toilets, a day-access center originally intended for 150 homeless can now only hold 40-60, while only six of the planned 25 benches have been installed so far—with the rest between six to eight weeks away, according to the mayor's new representative on the committee, Kyle Chisek.
So far, the oversight committee's restroom subcommittee has only refurbished four stalls in an existing restroom at SW 4th and Clay, and is hoping that four more stalls will be refurbished at another old restroom on SW 8th and Ankeny by early July. But a new 24-hour restroom, planned for the corner of NW 3rd and Couch, remains just a blurry vision for the committee.
"Optimistically, we're going to have a timeline on this by October," said Richard Harris, executive director of Central City Concern, and head of the SAFE oversight committee's sub-group to site new restrooms, at a meeting last Thursday, May 31.
Harris' lack of urgency came as a surprise to the committee.
"It seems like the bottom line is we're looking to open maybe two new stalls," said Neil Dower, a civic action organizer with the homeless nonprofit group, Sisters of the Road.
Several on the committee raised concerns about all the compromises it had to make, relative to the timing of enforcement of the law, including Sisters of the Road Director Genny Nelson, Jamaal Folsom, who represents Commissioner Erik Sten's office, and Marc Jolin, executive director of the homeless charity JOIN.
Meanwhile, downtown police and Portland Patrol, Inc. officers have been trained in how to enforce the ordinance and will start doing so on June 9—the day of the Rose Festival Parade—unless Commissioner Leonard's new effort is successful.
"The bigger the gap between the ordinance and the service delivery, the harder it is to believe that we're taking our service role seriously," said Jolin. "Services aren't at the level I think most people expected when this ordinance was enacted."
"Getting the restrooms online is probably the hardest political issue," agreed committee co-chair Monica Goracke of the Oregon Law Center—who proposed pushing for temporary restrooms until the new 24-hour facility can be built.
But the committee's concerns did not draw a meaningful response from co-chair Mike Kuykendall, who is vice president of downtown services for the Portland Business Alliance, and whose organization is widely regarded as the driving force behind the sit-lie law.
Kuykendall agreed that the restroom sub-committee should look at temporary solutions as a priority, but seemed unconcerned to hear that the Julia West House day-access center is already overstretched, frequently with 70 or more homeless people showing up for services. On the small number of benches now installed, he added: "Twenty-five was an afterthought, so technically six is in compliance [with the original SAFE group's recommendations]."
The oversight committee will not meet again until June 14, after the ordinance's current enforcement date.