Test will come as all involved expect a tough summer ahead
Sisters Of The Road and representatives of the Portland Police Bureau reached an agreement this afternoon on how to alleviate the chronic nuisance property status hanging over the 30-year-old café’s head.
Sounds simple enough, but what’s at stake is Sisters’ survival as a service provider to the city’s poor and homeless in their neighborhood. And while the agreement addresses Sisters’ current chronic nuisance status, it does not address the larger problems facing the streets that are out of Sisters’ hands and expected to elevate as the summer months approach.
“There are huge systemic things, the root causes of which are not about Sisters,” said Monica Beemer, executive director of Sisters Of The Road. Among those dynamics, Beemer said, is the migration of people to Portland during the summer months, an expected warmer-than-usual summer, and the fact that the arrest of offenders, particularly drug users, means a three-hour turnaround through booking and back to the streets. “This all contributes to what’s really possible and what we can do.”
In August, 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 organization, which serves hundreds of meals each day to people in poverty and homelessness. Sisters immediately shut down for a month to address the problems, and has since been in regular meetings with Central Precinct Commander Dave Famous, Capt. Mark Kruger and officer Mark Friedman. In February, the two sides met to begin formal negotiations with the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, and finalized the agreement this afternoon.
If Sisters receives additional chronic nuisance violations, based on receiving three or more complaints in a month, it could be shut down by the city for a year or more. The organization rents the building from Central City Concern.
In the four or five months since regular talks have begun between the police and Sisters’ staff, the police say there have been no complaints that would qualify as a chronic nuisance problem. Sisters serves meals to people in poverty between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. five days a week, along with providing other support services.
The Good Neighbor Agreement reached by the two sides and negotiated by the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, places Sisters in the position of having to quell complaint calls related to its corner at Sixth Avenue and Davis Street in Old Town/Chinatown, a neighborhood where drug activity has been historically common. Sisters is located in the heart of it all.
Under the terms of the agreement, Sisters will patrol the sidewalk area outside of its café during operating hours, clear any blockage on the sidewalk and address any potential problems. This person will also serve as a deterrent to any drug activity or violence from occurring on the corner. The police wanted a full-time person employed to patrol the sidewalk during the café’s operation, but the two sides compromised on placing someone outdoors full-time on a temporary monthly basis only after the police receive two verified complaints within 30 days.
The police, meanwhile, have agreed to mark out the sidewalks to clarify a clear passage for customers and passersby. The agreement also includes a series of communication standards that both Sisters and police will adhere to.
Calls from Sisters staff will not apply toward the complaint tally, and only calls for incidents, directly related to Sisters, occurring during Sisters’ operating hours, on the sidewalk outside of their café, will count against them. However, the police figures on the numbers of complaint calls have been inconsistent in the lead up to the Sisters’ nuisance violations, ranging from nearly 300 (as stated by former Downtown Precinct Commander Mike Reese in the Portland Mercury), to 44, down to 38 over the same six-month period. It takes only three in one month to violate the city’s ordinance, and calls can relate to activity up to 200 feet away from the property in question.
An Aug. 26 letter from the police bureau to Sisters lists out some of the calls, mostly cases of intoxicated persons, drug use or dealing, and assault. Among those calls is a report of a “male sitting in front of the café who had been assaulted.” That person was later taken to the hospital for his injuries.
What loomed over the table, however, was what Beemer alluded to early in the meeting. Everyone who works with the streets, including advocates, police and social service workers, is anticipating a rough summer. Seattle is exploring an anti-panhandling ordinance and San Francisco is proposing a sit-lie ordinance similar to Portland’s, which was ruled unenforceable last year. Both of these forces are expected to displace more people on the streets.
Also, as reported in the Sept. 18 edition of Street Roots, heroin use on the streets of Portland has made a dramatic increase in recent years.
“It’s already getting weird out there,” Beemer said to the group. “It’s highly likely that stuff is going to happen that we have no control over.”
Posted by Joanne Zuhl