From Anna Griffin of the Oregonian, May 11, 2008

As the homeless protest at Portland City Hall hits its third and apparently final week, the philosophical gap between city leaders and protesters grows even wider.

City leaders say protesters need to stop camping outside City Hall now that they’ve been provided with more shelter space. Homeless people and their advocates say they never asked for shelter space. Rather, they want the right to sleep outdoors and looser anti-loitering laws.

For now, there’s no obvious middle ground. Even if this protest ends Tuesday, as Mayor Tom Potter seems to have declared it will with his decision to start forcing campers out over the weekend, more are likely in the future. Everybody agrees the city needs more permanent housing, but that’s a long-term solution dependent on a finite — and shrinking — pool of money.

“This is a broader social problem all over the world,” said Austin Raglione, his chief of staff. “We can’t find permanent housing on demand, immediately. That takes time. But we do have shelter beds.”

The protest began when a group of homeless men and women, infuriated by police sweeps of camping sites beneath the Burnside Bridge, relocated to City Hall. As many as 100 people have gathered at times, wrapping around three sides of the seat of city government and crowding busy downtown sidewalks.

Portland laws bar people from overnighting on public property and loitering. But because this is a protest, those rules don’t apply.

Protesters say their immediate priority is an end to those laws, or at least a promise that city police and private security guards won’t enforce them. Several headed indoors and up a floor to speak at last week’s City Council meeting.

“I don’t want anything from you. I don’t want any free ride from you at all,” said Lisa Iacuzzi, part of the group now calling itself the “Homeless Liberation Front.” “I have a master’s degree. I paid my way for my own education. I don’t want anything free. I just don’t want to be treated like a criminal.”

Potter thanked Iacuzzi and the other protesters, but said he can’t drop the camping ban or the loitering “sit-lie” law. “The solution to homelessness is not camping,” he said. “It’s moving folks into housing.”

Portland leaders are trying to do exactly that.

Over the past three years, city government has developed more than 1,008 new low-income housing units and replaced more than $20 million in federal housing money cut by the Bush administration, much of it money meant to help people pay their rent.

Portland’s 10-year plan to end homelessness recently won plaudits from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The number of Portlanders considered chronically homeless has dropped from 1,284 to 386 in the last two years, although advocates say the annual census of who’s on the street can’t count everyone.

But building new apartment complexes and small houses takes time. Plus, there will always be a certain number of homeless men and women who either aren’t ready for permanent housing or don’t want it.

So, while the city builds housing, what happens to the people who aren’t quite ready to move indoors for good? Nobody has an answer.

“It’s going to take some really creative and innovative thinking by the city to couple the real-time realities with the long-term approach of the 10-year-plan,” said Israel Bayer, director of the nonprofit newspaper Street Roots. “They came out and declared success so fast. Yes, the plan says that by 2015 they will have solved homelessness. But there’s never going to be a time when you don’t have people on the street.”

On any given night, there are an estimated 1,400 homeless people in Portland. Nonprofits offer year-round shelter beds and “transitional” housing units for people somewhere in between a spot on the sidewalk and true stability.

The city pays to add shelter space in the winter. Those beds closed March 31, although Potter has responded to the protest by finding money to keep about 100 extra beds open through May and June.

Commissioner Randy Leonard says the city needs to pay for more year-round shelter space, even though the city’s own anti-homelessness plan says permanent housing is the priority.

“All I know is that we weren’t having this problem until the winter shelters closed,” Leonard said. “I know what the advocates are going to say, but I also know what actually occurs. If you give people a place to spend the night indoors, they’ll take it.”

Advocates say talking about shelter space distracts from the real issue: City laws essentially make it illegal to be homeless. Until that changes — not likely — protests will be a semi-regular occurrence, activists say.

Protesters say they want Potter and the City Council to show the same kind of creativity and compassion as the city leaders who created Dignity Village, the permanent campsite on public land.

That settlement began as a handful of tents gathered under the Broadway Bridge in late 2000 — also amid complaints that Portland’s shelters and other services for homeless people were inadequate. Eventually, City Council members found the campers a permanent home near Portland International Airport.

Patrick Nolen, a community organizer for the nonprofit Sisters of the Road, said some sort of government-approved “green zone” must be part of the solution this time. He suggested the city allow overnight camping in the North Park Blocks. A patrol car could sit nearby to prevent trouble. City leaders could work with mental health agencies and social workers to ensure that campers get help making a transition into housing.

“The sweeps happen every year at this time,” said Nolen, whose organization pulled out of the mayor’s street access task force last week to protest the sit-lie law. “But you can’t sweep people up and not give them another place to go.”

In 1992, demonstrators seeking help for homeless people stormed then-Mayor Bud Clark’s office. Two people were arrested.

In 2003, police arrested six people while breaking up protests — including a “Peace Camp” in Terry Schrunk Plaza — against an earlier form of the sit-lie law and the Iraq war.

For most of the past two weeks, Potter seemed inclined to ride out another round of passive resistance. But Friday, City Hall security guards reported that they’d found feces, semen and needles in the first-floor public bathrooms, the ones protesters had been using. Police noted that the crowd, which had grown from a couple of dozen to 100, consisted of fewer true protesters and more young people who seemed to be there for the thrill of it.

On Saturday, Potter announced that Portland police would begin enforcing the anti-camping law and cracking down in earnest Tuesday. People can still protest, he said, but they cannot camp.

Also Saturday, police arrested seven people after TriMet drivers complained they were sticking their feet into traffic on the south side of City Hall. By Sunday afternoon, the crowd outside the building appeared smaller, numbering about a dozen, plus about 15 more unattended sleeping bundles.

Potter is hoping, aides say, that protesters will take advantage of the 102 new shelter beds the city just opened. Otherwise, the mayor may have no choice but to order police to sweep the area.

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