from Anna Griffin of the Oregonian, May 2, 2008

Services – A group camps at Portland’s City Hall to protest police sweeps of transient sites

A group of homeless men and women have found a dramatic way to force Portland leaders to pay attention to their plight: They’re camping on the sidewalk right outside City Hall.

Several dozen people parked their shopping carts, tied up their dogs and unrolled their sleeping bags a week ago to protest police sweeps in transient camps beneath the Burnside Bridge and other spots along the riverfront.

They said they’ll be sleeping in the middle of downtown until the city takes steps to provide more low-income housing and help more homeless people get off the street.

“People like to ignore the problems of homeless people,” said Duane Reynolds, 45, who’s camping with his brother. “They can’t ignore us here, can they?”

Portland has more than 1,400 chronically homeless people, according to the most recent street census, a number that has steadily dropped as taxpayers have contributed millions of dollars in new affordable housing. But the city still only has about 700 year-round temporary shelter beds.

During the colder months, city government pays for more space. That ended March 31, triggering a rise in the number of people camping out under bridges and in city parks. Over the past few weeks, police began warning men and women in several transient settlements that they needed to move.

Advocates for the homeless say police always crack down on homeless people just before the start of summer festival season. The first event of the year, Cinco de Mayo, begins today and will bring about 300,000 people to Tom McCall Waterfront Park. The Portland Rose Festival starts May 29.

Police said they’re not trying to hide the city’s homeless. The rising number of campers invariably leads to more violence, more rats and more complaints. Several of the protesters said a police officer suggested they move from beneath the bridge to City Hall.

Portland has laws against camping on city property and loitering on the sidewalks. But there’s an exception for protesters, and that’s what the homeless people say they’re doing. They have signs — “Old Town is Our Town” and “We are not a menace to society” — and self-enforced rules: No violence. No cursing. No drugs or alcohol.

Police officers said the crowd has behaved. They’ve cleaned up their garbage, been polite to passing office workers and generally obeyed the law. So far, the protesters are taking care to leave enough space for city bureaucrats and other downtown office workers to pass by.

“You can’t break the law to protest,” said Cmdr. Mike Reese, who oversees Central Precinct. “There are some structures that we could ask them to take down. We could ask them to protest in a manner that doesn’t block the sidewalk quite so much. But unless people complain, we’re not going out looking for problems.”

The campers said they don’t know how long they’ll be out there.

“We are not trying to scare people, and we are not asking for handouts,” said a man who goes by the name Shadowdog. “What we want is permanent housing for everybody. At the very least, we want the mayor to come talk to us.”

City Commissioner Randy Leonard has met with the protesters and said he’s working on a plan to get more emergency money for shelter space. City Council candidate Jeff Bissonette slept with them Wednesday.

Mayor Tom Potter hasn’t been out to talk with the campers but found money to reopen winter shelter space — 12 beds for women and 90 for men — for May and June.

He’s also sent a letter to all city employees explaining the situation and asking them to be courteous to their new neighbors.