From Mara Grunbaum of Street Roots, May 20, 2008
People on the streets organize to send a message to City Hall
Most passing drivers just drove. Some honked and waved in solidarity. One yelled, “Get a job!” – to which one of the homeless protesters outside City Hall shouted back, “I have one, thank you!”
If nothing else, the weeks-long Homeless Liberation Front protest – which calls for the suspension of Portland’s camping and sidewalk obstruction ordinances – has dragged the debate on homelessness out of the city’s bureaucratic offices and onto the street.
The protest, at first an impromptu showing of five people displaced from under the Burnside Bridge by April’s campsite sweeps, swelled to include more than 100 homeless people and supporters. Their tarps, blankets and protest signs (“Housing is a human right”; “This is a protest, not a camp”) lined the edge of the sidewalk in front of City Hall.
As the group grew, its organizers worked to maintain order. They formed trash brigades to keep the site clean and assigned security details to watch for theft and drug use. Several protesters were prone to seizures, so lookouts ran to warn them if sirens and lights approached.
On the evening of Saturday, May 10, about 50 protesters circled up in City Hall’s front plaza to regroup. Despite their efforts, things were in danger of getting out of control.
Seven people, including some of the protest’s recognized leaders, had been arrested that afternoon. Mayor Tom Potter had issued a statement citing “increasing congestion, obstruction and public safety concerns” as reasons he would ask the protesters to stop sleeping there. There had been arguments among protesters, a drug deal overnight and sanitation problems in the City Hall restroom the protesters were using. The police had posted signs declaring the sidewalk an illegal campsite.
The circle of protesters passed around a leather keychain-turned-talking stick as they discussed their next steps. What did they want from the mayor? Were they prepared to engage in civil disobedience? How could they make sure the city and the public took them seriously?
Rachel Williamson, one of the original protesters, reiterated the makeshift community’s rules: No alcohol or drug use. No foul language. No smoking on City Hall property. No weapons. Respect all others.
“People are seeing everything you do here,” said a protester named Rick, who came down from Seattle to join the protest. “It’s like you’re under a microscope.
“We need to stick together,” said Kat, a 19-year-old protester who is pregnant and trying to find housing. “The drama, everything, it separates us.”
The protesters voted to request a second meeting with the mayor, because the first had left them unsatisfied. Potter agreed two days later – to another private meeting, not a public one as protesters requested – in a letter that restated his safety concerns and seemed to hold the entire group accountable for them.
“I understand these illegal actions represent the work of a minority,” Potter wrote, “but it concerns me that the leadership of this protest appears unable to prevent these illegal acts. And while I believe in your rights to express your views, I also believe that every right comes with a corresponding responsibility to respect the law.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, the mayor’s concerns about the safety of the growing protest echoed the justification for the campsite sweeps that spurred it.
The camping ban has always been lightly enforced, said John Doussard, Potter’s communications director. “If folks are camping in small groups in quiet locations, (police) don’t bother them,” he said.
It’s when camps grow that dynamics change, according to Commander Mike Reese of the Portland Police Department. By the time the encampment under the Burnside Bridge was dismantled, it had reached 60 people, Reese said. “That’s just too large … we get fights, assaults, a lot of litter and vandalism.”
Some protesters and their advocates contend that removing troublemaking individuals could be just as effective as clearing whole camps, but Reese said it’s “pretty hard to know who in that group (are) the problem people.” He said that the week before the Burnside sweep, officers responded to a call about a fight involving 30 to 50 people.
Potter said he would not repeal the camping ordinance or the sit-lie ordinance, which prohibits sitting or lying on downtown sidewalks during the day. “These ordinances are livability ordinances,” Doussard said. “They deal specifically with the health and welfare of the public.”
The Portland Business Alliance, which had a hand in shaping the sit-lie ordinance, continues to support it. Megan Doern, PBA’s communications director, said the law helps retailers who feel that people sitting on the sidewalks are detracting from their business. “It’s been a valuable tool for making downtown the economic hub that it is,” she said.
But the ordinances face accusations that they criminalize homelessness and violate the civil rights of those they are enforced against.
In November, the Oregon Law Center sent a letter to the city of Portland threatening a class action lawsuit over the camping ordinance. The letter states that “policies and practices applied to (homeless individuals) violate their constitutional rights to equal protection secured by the Fourteenth Amendment and to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment secured by the Eighth Amendment.” The police are reviewing how they enforce the camping ordinance. (See “Camping law procedures under review,” page 1)
On May 8, Sisters of the Road announced its withdrawal from the mayor’s Street Access For Everyone work group, which developed the sit-lie ordinance in coordination with plans for new park benches, public restrooms and a homeless day access center. But Sisters’s Associate Director Michael Buonocore said in a statement that those services “have not been implemented in a timely and adequate manner,” and the sit-lie ordinance has been predominantly enforced against homeless people.
“The sit-lie ordinance has amplified the tragedy of the existing anti-camping ordinance, which also criminalizes those who have nowhere to sleep at night,” Buonocore said. “Between these two laws, it is effectively illegal to be homeless in Portland.”
If there’s one thing the protesters and officials seem to agree on, it’s that shelter beds are not a lasting solution.
“We have a 10-year plan,” Potter’s spokesman Doussard said. “We’re working on it. We’ve been very successful with it. I don’t think any of these problems get solved overnight.” The city has tried to be aggressive in securing emergency funding and shelter, he said, but “the solution to homelessness is getting people into homes, and that’s where we’re trying to focus our attention.”
The 10-year plan to end homelessness calls for 2,200 additional units of permanent supportive housing – low-income housing with services built in – by 2015. Three years into the plan, 710 units have opened and 298 more are in development.
But the city has “hit the wall of available rental units,” and it still hasn’t built all the permanent affordable housing it needs, said Sally Erickson, a homeless policy coordinator with the Bureau of Housing and Community Development.
When the plan launched in 2005, Erickson said, “we had a healthy vacancy rate and landlords were willing to take advantage of rent assistance incentives. Now that the vacancy rate is closer to 2 percent, it is increasingly difficult for people with not-so-great rental history to find housing.”
There’s always tension between shelter approaches and permanent housing, said Beth Kaye, BHCD’s public affairs manager. “We have a finite amount of resources to spend in the city, and every dollar we spend on shelter is a dollar that is not going to permanent housing. On the other hand, the 10-year plan recognizes the importance of safety off the streets.”
In response to the protest, the city council found money to open 90 additional shelter beds for men and 12 for women. By May 14, there were still spots for men available, but the women’s beds were full, with a waiting list 86 names long. Protesters dismissed the emergency shelter beds as a “Band-aid” rather than a serious effort.
Henry Raschke, who earns $250 a week working for the carpenters’ union but can’t find housing, said he is leery of shelters after a stay in one exposed him to tuberculosis. Others avoid shelters because they can’t bring their pets or sleep next to their opposite-sex partners.
“We need a safe zone where we can go to put up our tents, put up our structures, house ourselves, house our animals, and take care of ourselves, since there is not enough shelter,” said Joseph Vanderheiden, one of the protesters who met with Mayor Potter. At his press conference on May 13, Potter said the idea could be worth considering.
Asked where protesters should go instead of the 4th Avenue sidewalk, Potter said, “We don’t have answers to that. We know that different homeless agencies will be working with them to try to find them places.”
Full shelters and low vacancy rates in affordable housing leave over 1,400 people outside every night. The new day access center, with space for 150 men and women and low-income housing units on top, won’t open for at least two years.
“From a bureaucrat’s perspective, two years will go by really quickly,” Buonocore said. “They can legitimately talk about the fact that they’re working on it. And in the meantime, more and more people are landing on the streets.”
“I’m houseless, not homeless,” Duane Reynolds, one of the loudest protesters, explained to an inquisitive bystander on May 12. “Portland is my home.”
His account of the Burnside Bridge sweep differs from Reese’s. He says that while he was in church on April 21, five days before the posted notice said the camp needed to be cleared, his belongings were confiscated by police. When he tried to reclaim them, he said, he was ping-ponged between the Police Bureau and Parks and Recreation, each of which told him to check with the other. No one had his things.
“That was the final straw to get me here,” he said.
Larry Reynolds, Duane’s older brother, had been camping under the Hawthorne Bridge when he heard by word of mouth that people on the streets were starting to organize themselves. He joined the protest three days in, and he was eventually elected as a spokesperson. He was one of a few individuals to meet privately with Mayor Potter.
He left the first meeting frustrated that Mayor Potter would not repeal the ordinances, instead deferring to the 10-year plan as evidence that progress was being made.
“Do you know how tired we are?” he said that day. “You can’t sit here, you can’t stand here, you can’t lie here. You can’t cover up, you can’t sleep. You can’t get any rest. We’re midnight nomads, walking around with all our gear on our back, being told that we can’t sleep.”
Reynolds, a Cold War veteran who lost his job and his house after he broke his back working construction, said that the media, the police and the general public perpetuate a misconception that everyone on the streets is a beggar. For him, the protest represents a fight back against that attitude.
“There’s positive steps being made among the homeless community and messaging our plight to the general public,” Reynolds said. “We’re going to continue with what we are doing, and we are not going to give up on anyone that’s living out on the streets.”
“I may be new to advocating for myself and the homeless, but I’ve been helping people all my life,” he went on. “In a lot of ways this has taught me something about myself, and the good that exists in people. I think I have found my calling.”