Sit-lie is a gateway drug

August 12, 2008

One good dose of this distracting intoxicant and a whole roomful of people are likely to spin off on every social ill, vice and offense ever witnessed on Portland’s streets.

Yesterday at the public hearing for the city’s sit-lie ordinance (more formally known as the sidewalk obstruction ordinance) about 60 people assembled at the First Unitarian Church with members of the Street Access for Everyone, or SAFE Oversight Committee. They attended the two-hour hearing, organized by Mayor Tom Potter’s office, to give their views on the controversial ordinance that bans sitting or lying on downtown sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. It also bans leaving belongings and pets farther than two feet away from your body.

While the ordinance was the launch pad for this debate, discussion from participants ran the gamut: complaints about anti-camping policies, police sweeps and the routing of people without homes, the lack of follow-through on city’s pledges to open more restrooms, install sufficient numbers of benches and create a permanent day access center – the latter three promised by the city in exchange for the sit-lie ordinance.

Several people raised the issue of private security guards, hired by the Portland Business Alliance, being confused with police officers, who they said are enforcing the law inconsistently. There were also complaints by downtown workers and business owners who say they’ve been harassed, grabbed and even spit on by people outside their businesses, that aggressive panhandling is a problem, and that the number of homeless people, particularly “scary” youths, on the street is growing – none of which has much to do with the law itself, nor are they situations that sit-lie has done one whit to alleviate, despite efforts to couple them politically.

More after the jump.

When discussion did turn to the actual law, its implementation and its impact, most of the testimony from the audience was negative, including many who said it should be repealed, that it violated people’s civil rights, and several who called it “class warfare.”

“I think it’s counter productive, said Chani Geigle-Teller, an outreach worker with Cascadia. “The way it’s enforced and who it’s enforced against, that’s pushing away people, that alienates them and pushes them out to the shadows.”

Perhaps the best summation came from Katie Nilson, an outreach worker in Portland. Nilson works with people in low-income housing and was involved with the three-week camp-out in front of City Hall in protest of sit-lie and anti-camping policies. Nilson knows well the mix of issues on the streets, including mental illness, addiction and simply unable to find housing people can afford.

“We have these ‘livability’ ordinances; livability for whom?” she asked those around her table. “The committee is Street Access For Everyone; who is everyone? The sidewalks are for the public; who is the public? The people they’re targeting (with the sit-lie law) are not experiencing greater livability, greater access or greater safety. It’s discriminatory.”

The real issues are systemic, most notably the lack of affordable housing, Nilson said, which bears down on all efforts to house people, and trickles directly to the streets where people without homes accounted for the overwhelming majority of sit-lie warnings and all of the citations issued since the law was reinstated last summer. It’s wasted energy, in Nilson’s mind, and it is sabotaging the potential to create real solutions.
“It’s putting the community, which should be on the same side, against each other,” Nilson said.

The most significant set of ears in the room were on City Commissioner Nick Fish, the only commissioner to attend the event. Fish also attended the Truth Commission, an event held last week by Sisters Of The Road to collect and record testimony on people’s direct experiences with the sit-lie ordinance. The testimony paints a critical picture of a law that is unfair and discriminatory against people on the streets. (see post below)

The sit-lie law and the services promised in exchange for its enforcement are a package deal, Fish says, one that extends all the way to the proposed day access center, which might lose funding if a pending lawsuit succeeds in blocking the creation of a new urban renewal district known as the River District.

But what Fish will do with that information, including whether he would vote against sit-lie on its renewal later this summer, draws a firm “no comment.” Here the more intoxicating “package,” leaves sit-lie in the dust.

Despite the writing on the wall, we seem to be hooked on the notion of having a sit-lie ordinance, even as more significant problems on our streets go unaddressed, including mental health, drug and alcohol addiction and simply providing citizens a place to be.

The report from Monday’s hearing is expected to be presented to the City Council in October.

Posted by Joanne Zuhl

3 responses to “Sit-lie is a gateway drug

  1. Bill Hampton

    All views being parallax, Portlanders are way ahead or behind we Minneapolitans. Begging, being dirty, wearing the same clothes two days in a row, not seeing a dentist AT LEAST twice a year, not matriculating in four years, etc., are viewed by sensible Midwesterners as disgusting depravities, whatever the political tag. Here’s what we do, and it’s a way cool option: keep the riff-raff off the streets (they’re public which means they belong primarily to me and people like me), talk a lot about Darfur, or Michelle Bachman, or barbeques, or the minutia of weekend cabin upkeep. Who needs bums! They stink!

  2. All of my questions settled—tahkns!

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