From Anna Griffin of the Oregonian, May 20, 2008

Weeks of camping at Portland City Hall put the issue in the forefront but resolved nothing

Anybody who thinks being mayor is an easy job should have dropped by City Hall last week.

Out front, a lone remaining homeless protester shouted slurs against Tom Potter to passers-by: “He has a black heart! He doesn’t care about the homeless! Where does he think we’re supposed to go?”

Inside, e-mails castigated Portland’s mayor for taking 21/2 weeks to move the campers: “What kind of a bum is this guy?” wrote one constituent. “Why didn’t he round these people up the first night they were there? Why doesn’t he just tell them all to get a job?”

Nope, being mayor isn’t easy, certainly not when it comes to an issue as difficult as homelessness.

Potter knows few people in town are thrilled with the way he let the protest stretch out. But what else was he supposed to do?

“Some people think I should have gone slower in moving them. Some people felt I shouldn’t have allowed them out there at all,” Potter said. “I know I didn’t make anybody especially happy, but that’s not my job.”

He expects his successor — who may be decided today — will face the same dilemma.

A group of homeless men and women moved onto the sidewalk on the Fourth Avenue side of City Hall on April 25, rallying against police plans to sweep out encampments under the Burnside Bridge and other popular spots. Over the first two weeks, the nightly crowd grew to more than 100.

At first, Potter seemed content to let the protest die out on its own. Police were under strict instructions not to force the protesters to move as long as they behaved. The mayor changed strategy, however, when organizers began to lose control.

Last week, Potter announced that police would begin to enforce the camping ban. Officers closed off the sidewalk for cleaning, and most of the protesters left. Fewer than a dozen remained Monday in a park kitty-corner to City Hall.

The problem is that Potter was stuck with no obvious solution.

“They had two demands that I could not meet,” he said. Protesters wanted him to lift the bans on camping and loitering on city sidewalks.

“But it was hard to argue against their issues,” he said, “because there should be no homelessness. So we tried to give people a chance to leave gracefully.”

Politically and practically, he couldn’t lift the anti-camping ban: Even though police rarely cite people for it, the law is a useful tool for cleaning up homeless camps when conditions get too unsanitary or dangerous.

But he also doesn’t have anyplace for the protesters to go. Although the city opened 102 extra shelter beds, many of the people outside City Hall either couldn’t or wouldn’t use them.

Portland spends $37.5 million a year working to provide more affordable housing and find both temporary and long-term shelter for homeless people. But there isn’t enough housing to go around — there are wait lists both for shelter space and permanent housing.

Potter is an unlikely bad guy for either side, and probably one of the few mayors in the country patient enough to allow a crowd to camp outside the front door of his office for two weeks. He’s both a former Portland police chief schooled in the command-and-control style of leadership and a quintessential Portland liberal who believes in the public’s right to protest.

He knows from personal experience how much officers hate the annual sweeps of homeless people under bridges and overpasses, and knows how pointless those sweeps can be given the lack of adequate housing options. He’s also an advocate for homeless people who served as executive director of New Avenues for Youth, a nonprofit that helps homeless young people get off the street and has helped with construction work at Dignity Village, the permanent homeless camp in North Portland.

As mayor, he’s left housing issues to Portland’s political expert: City Commissioner Erik Sten. But Sten resigned at the end of April. That left the mayor in charge of housing temporarily, until Sten’s replacement is elected either today or in a July 15 runoff.

And while both homeless protesters and law-and-order types criticized his leadership over the past two weeks, no one else was stepping up to do anything. Other City Council members stayed mum. Neither of the major candidates to replace Potter — business owner Sho Dozono and City Commissioner Sam Adams — had much to say.

Soon, however, protesters will have someone else to yell at.

Potter has two pieces of advice for the new mayor when it comes to avoiding future protests:

Keep working on long-term solutions to end homelessness, but also look for more middle-range solutions such as transitional housing. The city needs more places for people to go while they’re waiting for permanent space, something more stable and comfortable than a shelter bed.

A new day center planned for Old Town/Chinatown will be a good start, especially if planners succeed in turning it into something more than a warehouse for homeless people to stay during the daylight hours when shelters are closed.

The new guy, whether it’s Adams or Dozono, should expect more protests. The economy is likely to worsen. Even with the city’s existing 10-year plan to end homelessness, affordable housing is still hard to find.

The city and county will probably never have enough money to help everyone who is on the streets because of an addiction or mental health problem.

“Whoever comes into this position next is going to have to find a balance between understanding the issue from their own personal perspective and understanding the citywide good,” Potter said. “On an issue like this one, that can be very, very hard to do.”

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