After three hours of discussion, the public talks to reach a Good Neighbor Agreement between Sisters Of The Road Café and Portland police are still unresolved as the two parties work to address a chronic nuisance warning against the Old Town/Chinatown institution.
Last summer, after police reported an increase in nuisance calls related to Sisters’ corner at NW Sixth and Davis, the Portland Police Bureau issued a chronic nuisance warning against the 30-year-old organization, which serves hundreds of meals each day to people in poverty and homelessness. Sisters has been in talks with the police to develop an agreement to have the warning lifted and avoid further problems which could result in a citation and possible closure.
However at the beginning of the meeting today, with representatives from Sisters and the police seated around tables with other business owners and residents of the community, the underlying differences of philosophy set the stage for discussions to come. Sisters Of The Road Executive Director Monica Beemer prefaced the talks about the diverse population around the table, including among those representing Sisters, and the need for everyone involved to feel safe in light of activities by police that have targeted homeless people and peace activists. The PPB officers who have been working on negotiating an agreement include Capt. Mark Kruger, who was addressed in particular by Sisters staff person Richard Walden. Walden said he didn’t feel safe with Kruger at the table, referencing the captain’s “patterns of violence” and derogatory attitude against protesters dating back to 2002. Police actions in those protests resulted in major lawsuit settlements by the city.
Kruger responded by saying that he would not spend this time defending the “lawful” activities of a police officer, and that he has made a good faith effort in these negotiations. He then offered to remove himself from the meeting if that was requested.
“I don’t know what I can tell you that will make you feel any safer,” Kruger said.
“At Sisters, we believe in second chances,” Walden replied, and said it was OK if Kruger stayed.
That give and take underscored the two divergent perspectives on the issue of addressing nuisances on the sidewalks of Portland. While Sisters and the police at the table agreed on many points – most notably that the safety of the area to all in the community was paramount and that everyone can play a role in resolving the problems – the two parties could not agree on how far Sisters would have to go to correct a problem that essentially exists on the city’s property under police oversight.
It also highlighted the difference between an organization that has staked its success on tolerance, personalism and second chances, against a bureau charged with enforcing laws that place people experiencing homelessness, addiction and mental illness in their crosshairs.
Police cite the increase in calls for service to Sisters in issuing the warning. The PPB reports that between January and August last year, there were 38 calls for service. (The number of calls has risen steadily from 15 in 2005 to 37 in 2008) But those could include calls made by Sisters staffers to address problems, which the police encourage. It was not clear how many of those 38 were actually from people in the area reporting a problem at the site.
At the onset of the past summer’s problems, Sisters voluntarily shut down for a month between the end of July and August to address the situation. They have since increased their efforts to keep the sidewalks clear and curtail any illegal activities in their vicinity with sidewalk patrols four times an hour.
Kruger and Officer Mark Friedman, the Neighborhood Response Team officer, say the conditions have improved and Sisters is doing good work, by they want Sisters to employ a person full-time to patrol the sidewalk during their open hours to address problems, in particular drug activity outside the café where customers gather. Beemer maintains such a move would be both costly and problematic since Sisters doesn’t have jurisdiction over the sidewalks. Police said they are open to this step being taken only if the problem escalates to police receiving two nuisance calls in a 30-day period. This term, Sisters’ representatives said, would set them up for failure in a neighborhood that has become the city’s hub of street drug activity.
“Sisters has only so much capacity to reduce drug trafficking,” Beemer noted. “Is it Sisters’ roll to confront drug dealers?”
In a few months the neighborhood and Sisters will come into the busy season in terms of the numbers of people who will gather there for meals, hospitality and services. The tentative terms of this agreement would span throughout the summer, and there are more terms to be debated, including exclusions to the café and police access to the inside of the café during mealtimes.
More to come in the next edition of Street Roots.
Posted by Joanne Zuhl