From Anna Griffin and Joe Rose at the Oregonian, May 13, 2008

Campers disband in fear of a nighttime police sweep, but some say they’ll be back during the day
The around-the-clock homeless protest outside City Hall — with its sleeping bags, hand-scribbled signs and stuffed shopping carts — is over.

After more than two weeks of camping out on sidewalks to demand a suspension of Portland’s anti-camping and anti-loitering laws, demonstrators packed up and scattered shortly after sunset Tuesday.

But Arthur Rios, one of the protest leaders, said they will return to demonstrate during the day. Protesters decided to leave Tuesday night for fear the police might move in and clear out the campers during the night, he said.

The demonstrators were also “coming to terms” with political reality, Rios said. “We understand that the mayor is not going to do anything to help us overnight. We want to leave with the victories we’ve won. And we want to leave in solidarity.”

There wasn’t complete solidarity, however. As night fell, group members gathered in a circle outside City Hall to debate what some feared would be misinterpreted as giving up.

“If we disband the group now,” shouted a man in a baseball cap, “there’s no saying if we accomplished anything!”

Hours earlier, Mayor Tom Potter and leaders of the homeless protest talked behind closed doors. They emerged seeming no closer to finding a peaceful and mutually satisfying end to the demonstration.

Protesters still want a suspension of anti-camping and anti-loitering laws, which allow police to cite people who sleep outdoors on public property or sit on downtown sidewalks. Potter still won’t suspend the laws because he said they’re a useful tool for police to ensure public safety.

Yet in what looked like at least a baby step toward conciliation, Potter suggested that he would be willing to discuss the idea of a “green zone” for homeless people — a centralized place where those who can’t find shelter space can camp temporarily and receive help from mental health professionals and social workers.

That idea can be on the table when a committee that oversees the city’s 10-year plan to end homelessness meets next week, he said. He’s invited protest leaders to be a part of the discussion.

At the same time, he reiterated that police would begin enforcing the anti-camping and anti-loitering laws Tuesday evening with oral and then written warnings. Those who didn’t comply could face arrest.

City code allows people to protest for as long as eight hours at a time.

The number of protesters surged to almost 150 at one point when the prospect of a police sweep grew more likely. Many people packed their belongings and prepared to move if forced.

Rios, one of seven arrested and released Saturday in a dispute with police, said the group had several strategies ready if police moved in. In the end, though, the group’s leaders advocated continuing the protest during the day but finding other spots to camp overnight.

The mayor and protest leaders seem to be feeling the pressure and tension of a struggle that has stretched into its third week with no obvious compromise in the making.

Rios came out of the mayor’s conference room to complain that Potter’s staff had written a response to the meeting in advance and forced protesters to turn off tape recorders given to them by reporters at the Portland Mercury, an alternative weekly, after Potter refused to open the meeting to the public.

Potter didn’t take kindly to a question about how he could have allowed a large group to camp outside City Hall for two weeks without expecting public safety problems. He stared at the reporter for a moment before responding. “That is a really dumb question,” he said. “Would you like to rephrase it?”

Potter said the city has opened 102 extra shelter beds since the protest began, and 18 sat empty Monday night. He also noted that the crowd outside City Hall now includes a number of people who aren’t homeless. Perhaps, the mayor suggested, those people could take a few homeless men and women home with them overnight during the protest so they don’t violate the law.

A moment later, someone asked the mayor whether he would be willing to take a homeless person into his house.

The mayor’s answer was brief: “No.”

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