Mayor and columnist spar in the pages of The Oregonian on the issue of homelessness

Mayor Charlie Hales: We’re using a measured approach to take back Portland’s sidewalks

By Charlie Hales, Guest Column in The Oregonian, August 14, 2013

Mayor Charlie Hales

Mayor Charlie Hales

Lawlessness on Portland sidewalks is not a new issue, nor is it an easy one.

So this summer, we crafted a plan to address lawlessness on the public right-of-way. The plan is underway. It hasn’t been rushed. We’ll modify it. We’ll listen to the advice of others. And, with luck and hard effort, we’ll find the happy medium that improves the quality of life for Portlanders while adhering to the confinements of state law and our city ordinances.

We didn’t launch this plan citywide, but rolled it out slowly, so we could gauge its effectiveness and make changes where necessary.

It started at City Hall because we had an overriding public need at this, the people’s building. A number of people, apparently including members of the Occupy Portland movement, had been living on our sidewalks for months. Portland police recorded 113 calls for service to this one block in just the first 180 days of the year. There were reports of drug use, public drunkenness, fights and intimidation. Residents called my staff every week to say they felt threatened or harassed, and felt they could not access their own City Hall.

In July, we told these folks on the sidewalks that it was time to move on. We asked them to pick up their large piles of things — some personal belongings, some garbage. They would be allowed to protest during the day and to lay out a sleeping bag at night. But they could not set up residence on the sidewalks.

Many complied. The front of City Hall became cleaner and more welcoming. Protesters still protest at City Hall. They did before, they do today and they will always have that opportunity. Their First Amendment rights have not been altered.

Some of the lawless group picked up their belongings and moved across the street to Chapman Square.

During the first week in August, Portland police informed them that they can’t live on that sidewalk, either. Some complied. Those who didn’t were interfering with a police officer, which is a Class A misdemeanor. That means court appointments and, possibly, warrants for failure to appear.

We picked other hot spots throughout the downtown core and did the same. It was a measured approach. We saw five arrests the first day, zero the second and zero the third. Again: Our approach was measured and methodical.

The goal is to remind people of the social contract: Some activities are appropriate on our sidewalks, and some aren’t. It’s not just living on the sidewalk, but public sex, drug use — the kinds of lawless activities about which the great majority of Portland residents readily agree.

Will people still be able to have their voices heard at City Hall? Absolutely.

Is this a cure for homelessness in Portland? Of course not. That’s a huge nationwide and local issue that no one has been able to solve in decades. We’re committed to working on that issue in partnership with Multnomah County, law enforcement, social services and mental health organizations, homeless activists and the homeless themselves. I also want to work with the other large landowners in the area, including the railroads, Oregon Department of Transportation and TriMet. We all need to manage the properties we own.

Meanwhile, bit by bit, our sidewalks are becoming more manageable. The 600,000 residents of Portland have unfettered access to their City Hall and to more and more of the civic spaces of our city that, after all, belong to all of us.

Steve Duin: Yo, Charlie Hales! Politics are relational

By Steve Duin, columnist for The Oregonian, August 14, 2013

Oregonian columnist Steve Duin

Oregonian columnist Steve Duin

When in the world, city Commissioner Nick Fish wonders, did Charlie Hales morph into Rudy Giuliani?

During the mayoral campaign, Hales was the thoughtful moderate on homeless issues. With the barbarians at the Fourth Avenue gates of City Hall, he turned — a la Giuliani, circa 1995 — into the law-and-order cowboy, conflating homelessness and aggressive panhandling, Fish said, and labeling “both an epidemic.”

The mayor’s rhetoric and disdain so annoyed the famously cautious Fish that he mounted the proverbial soapbox this week and went public with his complaints. Before a chastened Hales invited Fish back into the board room Wednesday, two things were clear:

Veterans of the homeless crisis — Fish spent almost five years running the Bureau of Housing — take the issue very personally.

And Hales’ amateurish, ham-handed management style appears set in stone.

As Israel Bayer, the executive director of Street Roots, notes, “Historically, this has been an issue that has gone sideways 20 different ways. It takes a surgical approach to do this stuff without it turning into a circus.”

You would think Hales understands that, given his 1992-2002 stint on the council.

Given the recession, local unemployment, the reshuffled bureau assignments and the usual summer influx of stragglers — “A perfect storm,” says Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury — you would hope the mayor would err on the side of inclusiveness.

He hasn’t. In his April State of the City address, he spoke of the “epidemic of panhandling and homelessness.”

Fish was appalled. “That’s very charged language. It’s the language of disease, and it’s inherently dehumanizing,” he said Tuesday. “There has been no sense of compassion for people who find themselves on the streets. This has been alarming to our nonprofit partners.”

As the Portland Mercury reported, even Bernie Bottomly, lobbyist for the Portland Business Association, cautioned Hales about mentioning “homelessness and sidewalks in the same breath,” and not drawing a distinction between status and conduct.

Yet Fish is more concerned that Hales has sought so little input from the coalition of advocates that has found housing for more than 12,000 families and individuals since 2004.

Despite Hales’ insistence Wednesday that he is committed to dealing with homelessness “in partnership” with the battle-scarred, Fish said he’s been excluded from the discussions.

The county has been similarly ignored, Deborah Kafoury said: “I was surprised that he wasn’t including the county, because we’re a huge provider of homeless services.”

It didn’t help last week when Hales, after finally cracking down on the camping outside City Hall, promised to increase funding for … overnight shelters.

Shelters? “Shelters aren’t at the top of anyone’s list,” said Gretchen Kafoury, a longtime homeless advocate who served on the council with Hales in the ’90s. “We want to get people into housing. The mayor doesn’t seem to want to pay attention to any of the work that’s already been done.”

Is he understaffed? Stubborn? Unwilling to share the stage? Hales used the word “we” 13 times in Wednesday’s Oregonian op-ed, but his sole partner at City Hall appears to be Gail Shibley, his chief of staff.

And what was the mayor thinking in assigning the Housing Bureau to Commissioner Dan Saltzman? “Dan has been very consistent,” Fish said. “He’s not going to be taking the lead on this.”

Bayer is urging calm. He thinks it’s unfortunate Hales began by framing the issue “in terms of lawlessness,” an entirely different conversation than “the lack of affordable housing stock in the city.

“It’s a media frenzy right now. I would like to believe that everyone has the right intentions. We’re just not on the same page.”

Late Wednesday morning, Hales turned a page. As Fish’s comments echoed around City Hall, the mayor finally invited his colleague to join an afternoon meeting with homeless advocates.

“I appreciate that Charlie is now reaching out,” Fish said. “I just think this is something we should have done two months ago.”

As anyone with a basic understanding of Portland politics should have known.