Fritz and Fish insist they need time for further discussion
City Council heard a wave of public testimony this morning against the downtown sit-lie ordinance, which they are considering extending until at least October 23, 2009.
The 2-year-old Sidwalk Obstruction Ordinance was scheduled to expire June 8. A Street Access For Everyone committee report finding that the ordinance was predominantly enforced against homeless people was presented to council in November.
Rather than having the council decide whether or not to renew the controversial ordinance permanently, Commissioner Amanda Fritz proposed prolonging its term to give her and Commissioner Nick Fish — both relatively new to council — time to study the ordinance and discuss it with the wider community.
For the play-by-play:
“Today is not a wholesale reapproval of the Sidewalk Obstruction Ordinance,” Mayor Adams said. “Today is an extension so that we can use the fresh eyes (of Fritz and Fish) to really look at this issue.”
Fritz said many city processes have been in flux, between budget cuts and bureau reorganizations. She and Commissioner Fish realized they wanted more time to look at the ordinance.
“We could just vote it up or down today, but then what?” she said. “One side would be happy and one side would be mad, and there would be much less incentive to come to the table” and discuss it.
Fritz said she’s heard from people in outlying neighborhoods that they care about the sidewalk ordinance, and she wants time to include them in the process. She’s heard from businesses who think the ordinance has been helpful, and from advocates who think it violates the civil rights of those on the streets.
Fritz made clear that she is not voting in favor of extending the ordinance forever, just for extending it until October so a better decision can be made. She said the decision today is not linked to any funding renewal.
“Most of all, I hear that people don’t feel heard, don’t feel respected … don’t feel there’s been enough council engagement,” Fritz said. “We want to truly engage in a dialogue,” so she and Fish are committing to spending their time over the summer learning about the issue.
Twenty-three people signed up to testify. Many sat in the audience with signs reading “No Sit/Lie!”
“Looking at this ordinance, I see inhumane treatment for my fellow humans, and it breaks my heart,” said Tobiah Tillman, the first to speak. “When you have human beings that are out on the streets right now that have all the odds against them… for them to be picked out of their sleeping spots after all of that, it just makes it harder for them to regain their composure, regain their jobs, and get them in a position of stable living.”
Lawrence Bishop said he spent many years homeless until he got off the streets four years ago. “We really need more shelters for women and children in Downtown Portland,” he said. “I really feel that women and children need to be off the streets as well as men.”
Stoop Nilsson thanked Commissioner Leonard for his longstanding opposition to the ordinance, and she asked that council make sure the discussion process over the summer is transparent.
“It blows my mind that we’re able to speak about sustainability and green buildings, while simultaneously criminalizing humanity,” she said. “We must develop people, not buildings.”
Fritz encouraged people to sign up to be contacted by the commissioners or get in touch through her website.
April Burris noted that of 170 people warranted or cited between August 2007 and September 2008, 133 were homeless. “I believe that (homeless) people are really being targeted unfairly,” she said. “Obviously this is not about sidewalks.”
“What would be wrong with just not having this in place while we think about it?” she concluded, to applause in the chamber.
“Two years ago I came here to testify on this same law,” said formerly homeless activist Patrick Nolen, “and Randy Leonard really called me to the carpet, saying, you’d better make sure you get what you’re asking for before you give up what you’re going to give up.”
Nolen said he’s still waiting for the Resource Access Center and many other services. Fish told him to “stay tuned” — that there might be progress on that soon.
He says the behaviors businesses complain about in justification of the law, like people spitting on or harrassing passersby, are illegal regardless of the sit-lie ordinance, so it shouldn’t be necessary to use the ordinance.
Fish said he doesn’t want to use criminal laws to enforce on people who may have mental health or substance abuse issues, and the sit-lie is based on civil laws instead. “I’m not interested in using criminal laws to enforce on people on the streets,” Fish said.
Leonard disagreed with Fish and agreed with Nolen. “If they are homeless, if they are mentally ill, if they are drug-addicted. I have a long history of not only trying to help those people, but holding them accountable.”
Leonard pointed to the Service Coordination Team, which uses criminal enforcement and has drastically reduced recidivism in Old Town. He said trying to avoid using criminal statutes is short-sighted.
“This is why we’re going to have a 4-month discussion,” Fritz said.
“Why would we allow to extend a policy that we have demonstrated not to work for people who are vulnerable?” Leonard added.
A 17 year-old named Mariah said she has never been homeless, but her family has had homeless people living with them before.
“If me and my family were shopping and we decided to sit down, would we be ticketed, or is this specifically targeted to homelessness?” she asked.
Fritz said that’s one of the questions they plan to address.
Sandra McDonough, president of the Portland Business Alliance, said the ordinance and the SAFE committee have been able to address problems in the community that were never addressed before.
“We think there are a number of neighborhoods beyond downtown Portland and the Lloyd Center where we should look” at using the same system to address homelessness, she said.
Joe Row, speaking against the ordinance, told McDonough he would like to get to know her and find out “why people go to such extreme measures out of their fears” of homeless people. He said extending the ordinance is inhumane, and the law is unconstitutional because it restricts the right to assemble peacably.
Leo Rhodes, who has been homeless off-and-on for 20 years, suggested the commissioners set their alarm clocks for every 20 minutes at night, get up, carry a full bag in circles around their house, and go to sleep in a different room to understand the experience of living outside.
Devin DiBernardo of Sisters of the Road said the organization opposes the law, which they think violates civil rights. Sit-lie doesn’t solve the issues facing homeless adults and youth, she said — it only moves people around.
“Commissioner Fish, you talked about wanting some breathing room to make this decision, but I think a lot of the people in this room want some breathing room to live their lives,” another woman said.
Shaggy Simpson, who spent 18 months in the armed services in Baghdad and now sleeps on the streets, said he came back from Iraq to find that “all the freedoms I was fighting for … were gone.”
“This law is garbage, and it needs to be thrown away.”
“Thanks for your testimony, and thanks for your service,” Adams told him.
Leonard said he was struggling to understand Fish and Fritz’s argument that they want to extend the ordinance because they heard citizens express concern about it. “Why not let the ordinance expire and have those conversations?” he said.
“While I don’t always please everybody in the positions I take, I think I am very consistent,” he said. “If you tell somebody to move along that is sitting downtown and they have no place to go, what happens? Do they just evaporate?”
Instead, he said, the police bureau starts getting calls from other neighborhoods, where homeless people have relocated.
“You have to give safe places for people to go when you tell them to move along. You have to give them toilets. You have to address the issues that make them homeless, and for us not to do that is short-sighted.”
“I’m very disappointed that we’re going to vote next week” on extending the ordinance. “I’ve heard what these folks had to say, and I agree with them, this is the wrong thing to do.”
Fish responded that “Commissioner Fritz has given us a path to a better outcome, whatever that outcome is.” He has changed his mind after discussions in the past, he said. He wants to hear comment on all 17 recommendations from the SAFE committee and to hear from the Oregon Law Center and other critics of the process.
“I agonized over this issue,” Fritz concluded. Trying to extend it is “changing my mind from what I thought I would do when I was campaigning. (But) I won’t make this decision feeling like I’m rushed and don’t have all the information I need.”
There was audible unrest in the chamber as the council agenda moved on. The commissioners will vote next week on the temporary extension.
Posted by Mara Grunbaum