From Jeff Bissonette, May 7, 2008

For the past 13 days, a growing group of homeless people have been protesting outside of City Hall. Their message, in short: do something to get us off the street.

To be sure, the City of Portland has been demonstrating significant leadership in helping chronically homeless people off the street and into permanent housing. The point of the protesters in front of City Hall is simply that progress isn’t being made fast enough. Frankly, I’m not sure anyone can argue with that.

The protest started after some homeless people were “swept” from various places around the downtown area. They contend that police forcibly took their belongings and are not providing them with any options for safe places to sleep. The number of available shelter spaces, which are never plentiful, are going down with the onset of warmer weather. That, along with Portland’s current prohibitions against sitting and lying on the street and against homeless people setting up camping sites, it is difficult for a homeless person to find a place to sleep at night.

I’ve spent some time over the last several days with the protesters. I’ve talked with many of them about their personal experiences – about how they came to be homeless, about life on the streets, about thinking of a better life. Most of the people I talked to are actually from Portland, having grown up here and now finding themselves homeless on the streets of their home town.

And I’ve talked to them about what they want out of the protest. The protesters are pushing a hard line of questions. “No more band-aids” is a common refrain. What do they want? housing. When do they want it? Now. And it’s not just a chant at a march; to them, it’s about meeting a basic need.

The main editorial in Tuesday, May 6th’s Oregonian calls for an end to the “slumber party” in front of City Hall. The editors contend it’s time to say “party’s over” to the protesters. They pad their position by saying this message should be accompanied by “ample notice and social services offered to those who need and will accept them.” Trouble is, they offer no long-term solutions to the protesters who, far from having a “slumber party,” are simply organizing themselves to get help from city officials. The Oregonian’s editors are the only ones who think there’s a party going on in front of City Hall. In fact, City Hall is currently the scene of a high-stakes policy debate with homeless people as active participants. As they should be.

I’m running for the Portland City Council to be involved in just these kinds of debates and to develop solutions to the many challenges facing the city. Here is where I would start the conversation with the protesters to begin to address some of their concerns:

1) Require an immediate accounting from the Portland Police of what happened to personal belongings taken in recent “sweeps.” Items that can be returned should be. Where items cannot be returned to their owners, the City should also explore replacing at least some of the key belongings, like tents and sleeping bags. The City should also end the practice of taking belongings from homeless individuals.

2) Suspend the current sit/lie and anti-camping ordinances. The passage of these ordinances were predicated on making sure that homeless people had someplace safe to go. The city has not yet held up its end of the bargain. Until the newly-approved day access center is completed and operational and until we’ve seen more progress on the ten-year plan to end homelessness to provide additional permanent, affordable housing, the city cannot enforce the sit/lie or anti-camping ordinances.

3) Create some sort of space where homeless people can sleep safely. As the city continues to implement the ten-year plan and the day access center gets built, homeless people need a place to stay now. The shelter system is stretched far beyond capacity and homeless people are left with few other options. The city needs to determine where people can literally sleep at night and have at least some assurance of safety while we work to provide permanent housing.

4) Utilize the Restorative Listening Project coordinated by the Office of Neighborhood Involvement to constructively discuss issues around gentrification, to conduct similar sessions between homeless and non-homeless Portlanders to create the opportunity for dialogue. The Mayor and City Council members also need to participate in a session.

5) Move more aggressively on the ten-year plan. As admirable as the city’s progress is on reducing chronic homelessness, we can’t wait until 2015 for the plan to be fully implemented. Is it a fiscal challenge to move more aggressively? Yes. But it’s costing us in both human lives and moral standing to move more slowly. The city council could start by adding back resources, like additional funding for the popular and effective Project Homeless Connect, that were left out of the mayor’s proposed budget.

6) The city should continue its advocacy at the state level for a portion of the document recording fee to be dedicated to affordable housing. In 2007, the Oregon legislature came very close to approving an increase in the current document recording fee, collected as part of all real estate transactions, from $21 to $36, with the increase going to support the building of affordable housing. The increase would generate about $60 million per biennium statewide, ensuring that communities throughout Oregon could work collectively to create more housing. The City of Portland has been an active participant in the Affordable Housing Now Coalition and should continue in that role for the 2009 session so that more statewide resources can be put to work here in Portland and other Oregon cities.

7) Finally, the federal government has fallen down in its responsibility to help cities deal with affordable housing issues. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding level to support cities’ efforts to address housing and homeless issues has been scaled back dramatically over the past several years. The City of Portland should work with the Oregon delegation, particularly with its member on the House Ways and Means Committee, to increase federal resources dedicated to ending homelessness.

The City Hall protesters are raising precisely the issues that need to be addressed. It’s unfortunate if City leaders are uncomfortable being put on the spot with difficult questions and are unwilling to consider a new course of discussion. But making the protesters go away doesn’t make the questions and issues go away. As a community, we must respect the protest for what it is: a demand for action. Let’s not turn away from an opportunity to have the City of Portland join the protesters in demonstrating increased leadership to deal effectively with homelessness in both the short term as well as the long term.