By Lee Perlman
For the Hollywood Star News, June, 2010
To the chagrin of many homeless advocates, the Portland City Council passed new regulations governing the use of sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. in the city’s “high traffic pedestrian use zones” – i.e., downtown and the Lloyd District. The vote was four to zero with Commissioner Dan Saltzman voting by speaker phone and Commissioner Randy Leonard absent.
Under the proposed rules, devised by the staffs of Mayor Sam Adams and Commissioner Amanda Fritz, on a sidewalk 10 feet or more wide, people would be prohibited from sitting or lying in the “pedestrian zone,” usually the inner eight feet of sidewalk nearest adjacent buildings. A café or restaurant could place tables in this zone, and in this event the pedestrian zone would move eight feet further out. There would always have to be a part of the sidewalk that people could sit or lie in. They would need to keep any possessions they brought “within arm’s length” and keep dogs on leashes. They could stand in the pedestrian zone, but would have to give way to allow disabled people using canes, wheelchairs or walkers to get by.
Adams and Fritz made much of the fact that the new rules, for the first time, conferred on people the right to sit or lie, indefinitely, on part of the sidewalk as long as they behaved in a lawful manner. The law applies to objects such as A-frame signs as well as people. Police officers would have to give violators at least two warnings, one verbal and one written, before citing them. Even then, the offense would be a non-criminal “violation” for which they would receive a ticket and a summons to appear in court. A City Attorney said that people thus cited would not face jail time even if they failed to answer the summons.
Homeless advocates saw the rule differently. More than 30 people, many of them clients or staff from Sisters of the Road, objected that the rule was really a replacement for the “sit-lie” ordinance, a rule against sitting or lying on the sidewalk that had been declared unconstitutional. The new rule is an instrument to harass homeless people, they charged, and would be used for this purpose even if they police couldn’t use it to make arrests. Among those who testified were several disabled people who said they were insulted that the law was proposed in the “guise” of aiding them.
Why didn’t the new rule place the pedestrian zone on the inside of the sidewalk? Fritz was asked. Because technically touching a building wall is trespassing, although this is only invoked in response to a complaint, she replied. Thus the homeless are being shunted to the outer edges of the sidewalk, the most dangerous and least healthy area, with less consideration than cocktail tables, people complained.
When Sisters executive director Monica Beemer testified, both Fritz and Commissioner Nick Fish expressed their respect for her organization – and asked for specific ways that the new law could be made acceptable. Beemer replied, as had others, that it was unnecessary and that the city should use existing laws. When Fish pointed out that Sisters asks their patrons not to block the sidewalk – and denies them entrance to their café if they do – Beemer replied, “We don’t issue tickets.”
“As much as I respect the work you do, I disagree with the absolutist position you take,” Fish said.
Only two people testified in favor of the ordinance, one of them a trainer of guide dogs who complained that his animals had been attacked by off-leash dogs downtown. Fritz later told the Star that many people had expressed their support by e-mail or other means outside the Council chamber.