Last Wednesday afternoon, March 14, nearly 100 street kids gathered in Waterfront Park to protest the city's proposed sit-lie ordinance. Toting signs with slogans like "The Sit-Lie Sat on My Rights," the kids marched to city hall and plopped down on the building's front steps. Eventually, Jonny—one of the protest organizers, a 20-year-old guy with a double lip piercing and black hoodie—headed up to the mayor's office on the third floor of city hall to demand that someone talk to them.
The kids are concerned that the city is going to pass a sit-lie ordinance soon. Currently, the council is waiting to pass the new ordinance—which is technically called the "High Pedestrian Traffic Area" ordinance, and replaces the expired "Obstructions as Nuisances" ordinance—until other recommendations from Mayor Tom Potter's SAFE [Street Access for Everyone] Committee, like benches, public restrooms, and a day-access center for the homeless, are fully in place.
The kids—who spend much of their day panhandling on the sidewalk—say the new law would trample on their rights (they prefer the sidewalk to a day-access center), as well as open them up to police harassment.
Jared Spencer, a staff assistant on public safety issues in the mayor's office, headed outside to talk to the crowd. He insisted that the city was not trying to exclude homeless people from downtown, but explained that "We have people coming to us, saying [sidewalk access] is a problem."
Indeed, the mayor's office gets regular complaints about aggressive panhandling and the sight of homeless people in general—several letters and emails each month, plus phone calls on a weekly basis. One woman, who works downtown, wrote in February: "A few weeks ago, a panhandler threatened to hit me in the face because I wouldn't give him money. I told the police officers in Pioneer Square, but by that time he was gone." Another man left a message on the mayor's comment line on March 11, echoing her complaint, "Please do something about the epidemic of panhandling... It's getting so that you can't go anywhere downtown without being pestered by these idiots wheedling for spare change at literally every street corner."
Spencer says that members of the business community have similar concerns (the Portland Business Alliance's 2005 survey of downtown businesses—the most recent available—ranked "panhandlers" and "transients" as two out of the top three "factors needing the most improvement"), and "when we talk to the police bureau about this, they get a lot of complaints about the same thing."
However, other citizen input about downtown gives a more tempered view of the situation on the sidewalks: Draft summaries of the 13,000 surveys collected by visionPDX last year indicate that residents value "an attitude of compassion and care for the vulnerable people in Portland," "a clean and safe downtown and waterfront for everyone," and "accessible services, provided both by public bodies and nonprofits, that support people experiencing homelessness." The social issues summary noted the surveys' six main ideas about homelessness: While "the homeless population disturbs downtown business and tourism" was one, the other five involved helping the homeless and treating them with dignity, including a call for "more rights, resources, and services for the homeless population."
To be sure, the city has plenty of interests to balance when it comes to downtown's sidewalks. But the delay in implementing a new sit-lie ordinance—only seven benches have been installed, and the city has run into problems finding a day-access center site—has some advocates urging the city to think outside the sit-lie box, or ditch the ordinance altogether.
On Friday, two days after the protest, Street Roots' Director Israel Bayer posted an editorial on his personal blog, backing up the street kids.
"Street Roots tends to agree with the street kids and thinks the city should take it all off the table and start anew. This time with a law that doesn't ban people from existing or at least that allows people to sleep undisturbed downtown on public property, including parks," Bayer wrote.
And Oregon American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Legislative Director Andrea Meyer—a member of the SAFE Committee—is still opposed to the ordinance. She originally testified against it in January, noting that the proposed ordinance went further than the SAFE Committee's recommendations, which she'd cautiously signed onto, by barring sitting on stools or chairs, and limiting protests.
"I'm very pleased that other folks are beginning to speak out about this," she says. "Certainly we would hope that council would not only take their concerns into consideration, but also consider the ACLU's concerns and consider a different approach."
Matt Davis contributed to this story.