An unsigned editorial opinion from the Oregonian, May 15, 2008

A lesson from Dignity Village is that “temporary” homeless camps have a way of sticking around

Mayor Tom Potter extricated the city from a tense confrontation this week. He had let the overnight campout at City Hall swell into a party and spin on too long.

But he did end it, finally, on Tuesday. He got involved personally and negotiated intensively. And he brought the campout to as graceful a conclusion as anyone could have hoped for. That’s especially true given the fact that he didn’t budge on the campers’ basic demands.

They were asking for something inherently unreasonable, unfair and just plain wrong: the right to usurp city sidewalks or city parks as campgrounds. They wanted Potter to suspend city ordinances that prohibit such camping and loitering.

True, that would not have been in Potter’s power to do. But the mayor, to his credit, refused to even pretend such a suspension would be good.

He managed a difficult balancing act. He stuck up for the rights of the homeless to shelter, which his staff scrambled to provide (even though the protesters weren’t necessarily interested in the shelter beds his staff secured). But the mayor also stuck up for the public’s right to public places. City sidewalks and parks belong to the community and should never be treated as anyone’s private property.

There is a worrisome loose end, however: the notion of a “green zone.” Potter said he would at least be willing to discuss the idea of designating a zone where homeless people could camp temporarily and link up with mental health or social services. He’s not wrong to discuss the idea. The problem is in that word “temporarily.”

How would the city ensure any camp or zone of this sort is truly temporary? Dignity Village, as you’ll recall, was supposed to be temporary, too. Eight years later, it’s still going strong. The other problem, which Dignity Village also encountered, is the difficulty of finding a site that doesn’t infringe on other people’s rights. To find one, Dignity had to move out to a city leaf-composting yard near a prison.

In the end on Tuesday, the demonstrators picked up their sleeping bags and left, vowing to continue the protest during daylight hours but suspend the campout. There is a big difference between the two, and that’s the distinction the mayor drew.

“We understand that the mayor is not going to do anything to help us overnight,” one of the protest leaders, Arthur Rios, said Tuesday. “We want to leave with the victories we’ve won, and we want to leave in solidarity.”

Fair enough. The protest leaders deserve some credit, too. And they deserve housing. But no one deserves permanent “temporary” campgrounds.