From Anna Griffin of the Oregonian, May 13, 2008

Mayor Tom Potter says arrest will begin if the camp-in doesn’t end now

The city of Portland and the homeless protesters camped outside City Hall are headed for a showdown.

Mayor Tom Potter gave the crowd gathered on the Southwest Fourth Avenue side of the building until today to comply with the city’s anti-camping and anti-loitering laws. The protesters say they’re not leaving until the mayor agrees to at least a temporary suspension of the law against camping.

That means in all likelihood Portland police will end up forcing the protesters, some who have been in front of City Hall for more than two weeks, to move their belongings.

In a letter sent Monday afternoon, Potter agreed to meet with the protesters for a second time this afternoon. But he rejected their request that the meeting be open to the public and reiterated that he intends to begin enforcing city law.

“I strongly support your right to protest. However, the City has the right to make reasonable time, place, and manner rules for the conduct of protests in public spaces, and can also act to protect the public from unnecessary obstructions as well as health, sanitation, and safety problems,” he wrote. “Protests must comply with the City’s camping and sidewalk obstruction ordinances.”

The camp-in began April 25 in response to a confluence of events. Every spring, after extra winter shelter space has closed for the season, miniature tent cities spring up under bridges and in city parks. About the same time, police go through and warn occupants that they’ll soon sweep out the camps. The sweeps usually coincide with the start of the summer festival season, which began earlier this month with Cinco de Mayo.

This year, a group of campers responded to the police demand that they move along by taking their complaints — and their stuff — straight to City Hall. City laws prohibit camping on public property and loitering on downtown sidewalks, but protect people who are protesting.

For the first two weeks, the mayor ordered police to allow the camp-in to continue. But over the past few days, police say, the crowd became more unruly. TriMet drivers complained that some protesters have tried blocking bus stops and stuck their legs into the road.

City Hall security guards have begun warning visitors away from the first-floor bathrooms because of unsanitary conditions. Police say they’ve seen heroin deals and report that the crowd is now peppered with people who seem to care less about helping the homeless than with stirring up trouble.

“It looks like there’s a radical element there that isn’t homeless,” said Cmdr. Mike Reese, who oversees Central Precinct.

On Saturday, Potter announced that police would begin enforcing city laws at the protest. Officers ordered protesters to the outside of the sidewalks around City Hall and arrested seven people for resisting a police officer and, in one case, resisting arrest.

Potter has found city money to open 102 extra shelter beds. But many of the people protesting don’t want to go to shelters because they’re traveling with dogs, with a girlfriend or boyfriend or are disabled. Shelters typically don’t accept animals and split up men and women. Some people are also just happier camping out, said protest organizer Arthur Rios, perhaps because they’re not comfortable in large groups or fear having their belongings stolen while they sleep.

Rios and other protesters want Potter to temporarily lift the -camping ban, perhaps for a few weeks. They talk about a “green zone,” a centralized campsite where homeless men and women could meet with mental health workers, nurses and social workers in addition to spending the night.

Potter has said he won’t — and can’t — lift the anti-camping ordinance.

“We’re encouraging them to find other lower-impact camping spots,” Reese said. “Typically, we don’t go looking for campers unless we get complaints.”

On Sunday and Monday, protest organizers went through the crowd seeking volunteers willing to risk arrest if it comes to that. More than two dozen spoke up. Yet even people who are arrested are likely to be back on the street — and back to square one — within a matter of hours: Rios, for example, was arrested Saturday afternoon and released six hours later.

“We’re assuming they’re coming and they’re going to sweep us out, and we’re going to have to respond,” Rios said Monday afternoon. “We’ve done everything they asked us to do so far. All that has changed has been how the mayor and the police have responded to us.”

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