FOR ALL OF Portland's soul-searching about free speech and compassion, it's still crazy easy to ban homeless people from sitting on the sidewalk.
If the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) decides a stretch of downtown sidewalk is too busy, or too narrow, or too near transit, it can declare that segment off limits—no sitting or lying at all from 7 am to 9 pm. Move along.
In fact, PBOT's about to do that.
Beginning on July 1, eight new block faces in downtown Portland will be officially off limits as daytime seating. They include stretches where the Blue and Red MAX lines slice through downtown, the entire perimeter of the food cart pod at SW 10th and Alder, and the NW Couch side of Powell's City of Books.
It's the type of city hall fiat that usually throws advocates and civil liberties types into fits. The fact that that's not happening this time around says a lot about PBOT's process.
Since last year, the Portland Business Alliance has been pushing for the city to dramatically increase the places people can't sit. From the roughly 30 downtown block faces where sitting is currently prohibited, the PBA was asking for a total of about 120—changes that would have pushed people out of downtown's most bustling corridors to places where they wouldn't offend workaday folks and tourists ["Blocked Out," News, Nov 26, 2014].
PBOT staffers dismissed most of the PBA's requests, finding roughly two-thirds of them didn't pass muster for the types of safety concerns it looks for. Then the bureau went to homeless advocates to talk about the 33 expansions it was considering, and pared it down to eight it'll put into effect next month.
The advocates I spoke with were pleased with that sequence of events. Street Roots Executive Director Israel Bayer, for example, says he "felt like PBOT created a process that looked at sidewalks through the lens of actual pedestrian safety and not through the lens of panhandling or people experiencing homelessness."
Which is great—precisely how PBOT should be making these calls. But it's still unclear how pressing the city's safety concerns are. The bureau couldn't offer up a list of complaints or documented situations where sitting had caused difficulties at these sites. There was talk of one incident where a pedestrian had strayed into a tree planter and fallen down, but Bryan Hockaday, a staffer for Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick, said he couldn't discuss whether that was sidewalk-sitting-related (it might be the subject of a lawsuit, of course).
During a recent lunch hour, I visited each of the eight blocks the city plans to ordain as sit-free. They are all relatively shady amid the afternoon heat. Three of the blocks include MAX stops, and you can see why it could be inconvenient for people to be seated there. The food cart pod was doing a brisk business as always, making it hard to navigate. The sidewalk outside of Powell's was fairly quiet.
Were there people seated on the sidewalk? Yep. Two women near the food cart pod. Eating their lunch on the curb.
Don't try that shit next month, ladies.