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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From the Oregonian, May 15, 2008

Sit/lie – Police tell homeless advocates at City Hall that camping won’t be allowed

Portland police moved homeless campers from the sidewalks outside City Hall early Thursday, but their public protest for more housing and permission to sit on sidewalks and camp on public land remained.

Mayor Tom Potter asked police to act so workers could clean the sidewalks, said his spokesman, John Doussard.

“We had campers out there for 21/2 weeks,” he said. “And it doesn’t matter where your campsite is, after 21/2 weeks it needs to be cleaned.”

Around 5:30 a.m., officers told about two dozen people — most lying on the sidewalks — to move along, said Sgt. Brian Schmautz. No one was arrested as the protesters left, Schmautz said, but about an hour later, officers arrested Andrew Newman, 20, for standing in the street and yelling at police.

Police wrapped the area in yellow tape, then cleaning crews moved in from Downtown Clean and Safe, a service that the Portland Business Association runs under city contract. Those workers used to be homeless, part of a “homeless to work” program run by the business association and Central City Concern, PBA spokeswoman Megan Doern said. The business association did the job for free, she added.

Many protesters crossed the street to Chapman Square Park, hanging out and holding up protest signs while the cleaners worked. The sidewalk opened again about 12:30 p.m. Police handed out a list of rules explaining where protesters could stand on the sidewalk and saying they could have animals and property with them in those spots for eight hours — but no more camping.

“We’re basically looking for a clean slate, so people understand it’s a protest, not camping,” Schmautz said.

Several protesters declined to comment but passed out fliers asking for “the immediate repeal of sit/lie & camping ordinances” and “affordable and safe housing in Downtown Portland.”

From Michael Rollins at the Oregonian, May 15, 2008

Yellow police tape circled the Portland City Hall block this morning and signs of a homeless protest were — momentarily, at least — gone.

The tape prevented access to sidewalks and bus stops next to City Hall. Work crews were washing sidewalks and picking up garbage outside City Hall.

CAPTURE VIDEO

Portland Police Bureau spokesman Sgt. Brian Schmautz said about 15 officers cleared the sidewalk around 5:30 a.m. Over the course of an extended protest by the city’s homeless, “fecal matter and syringes” accumulated, Schmautz said, creating an unsafe environment. He said city workers would clean the sidewalks this morning and then reopen them. Afterward, anyone would be allowed to return and protest, but that the city planned to begin enforcing its no-camping rules.

Homeless demonstrators had camped out for two weeks to demand a suspension to Portland’s anti-camping and anti-loitering laws. Most had left shortly after sunset Tuesday, after a meeting with Mayor Tom Potter. But a small group refused to go, saying the decision to end the protest amounted to “arbitrary surrender” on the part of the group’s leaders. They had remained in place yesterday afternoon.

Arthur Rios, a spokesman for the group, said yesterday that the protesters who left were reacting in part to fears that the police might move in and forcefully clear out the campers during the night. Rios said demonstrators were also “coming to terms” with political reality.

Below is a video from the protest, shot earlier this week by Faith Cathcart of The Oregonian:

CAPTURE VIDEO

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.

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

Just when it appeared that the homeless protest outside City Hall had ended, about a dozen demonstrators have apparently decided to stay put.

Many of the demonstrators, who had camped out for two weeks to demand a suspension to Portland’s anti-camping and anti-loitering laws, left shortly after sunset. But a small group refused to go, saying the decision to end the protest amounted to “arbitrary surrender” on the part of the group’s leaders.

Arthur Rios, a spokesman for the group, said the protesters who left were reacting in part to fears that the police might move in and forcefully clear out the campers during the night. Rios said demonstrators were also “coming to terms” with political reality.

“We understand that the mayor is not going to do anything to help us overnight,” he said. “We want to leave with victories we’ve won. And we want to leave in solidarity.”

Of course, there wasn’t complete solidarity. As the sun set over downtown, members of the group gathered in a circle outside City Hall to debate what some feared would be misinterpreted as “giving up.”

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

Just before midnight, a small group of demonstrators remained. “As you can see, there are still people here,” said a man who declined to give his name. “The decision to leave was an arbitrary surrender, and we won’t go.”

A couple curled up on a blanket on the sidewalk. Some of the people milling about admitted that they weren’t homeless, but rather supporters of the cause.

The apparent end of the protest came hours after Portland Mayor Tom Potter and leaders of the homeless protest outside City Hall talked behind closed doors. They emerged seemingly no closer to finding a peaceful and mutually satisfying end to the two-week-old demonstration.

Protesters still want a suspension of the city’s 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.

But the mayor did suggest that he’d 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.

At the same time, he reiterated that police would begin enforcing the anti-camping and anti-loitering laws this evening by offering oral and then written warnings to people who break them. Those who don’t comply could face arrest.

“We feel that it’s time they comply with the rules set up around protesting,” the mayor said. “… I’m not saying you can’t protest. I’m saying that when you protest, you still must follow city laws.”

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

Rios said protest leaders ultimately pushed the idea to clean up and move out, with the support of much of the group. He said the group likely would continue to demonstrate at City Hall during the day but find other spots to camp overnight.

“I understand that there are people who may not like the decision or how things went today” in the meeting with Potter, he said. “But we are the ones that the group chose to represent them.”

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.”

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.”