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Our Opinion • City pitches its legal tent on rocky ground

by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Homeless advocates organize the move in at Right2DreamTwo, a downtown homeless encampment that will provide shelter for 30 to 50 people sleeping in tents.

If the organization setting up a homeless camp in Portland's Old Town wants to be free of harassment from City Hall, here's an easy solution: Change the name of the group to 'Occupy Chinatown.'

As reported in today's Tribune and elsewhere, the city is giving wide berth to the Occupy Portland protesters who've been rolling out their sleeping bags, erecting tents and settling in for what could be a several-week camping excursion in two parks near City Hall. Those protesters had blocked a city street and impeded traffic - with tacit approval of city officials.

Just a dozen blocks to the north, however, the very same city government is threatening to prohibit a group of homeless people from engaging in essentially the same activity at the entrance to Chinatown - even though the homeless would be camping on private, not public, property.

Plus, the homeless campers presumably would keep area streets open to traffic.

We realize consistency is not the city of Portland's long suit, but the disparate treatment of these two groups of people strikes us as particularly unfair.

It's true that the two camps have taken vastly different routes to arrive at a similar destination: a piece of ground in the city's central core. And it's also the case that the city has a long-running feud with the owner of the Chinatown property on what he can and cannot do with his lot. But we are having a difficult time following the city's reasoning for why it would give preferential treatment to the occupiers vs. the merely down-and-out.

One explanation is that the Occupy Portland protests are temporary, so the city should be flexible to avoid a hostile confrontation. After all, the protesters will be moving along in good time.

We would note, however, that these protests are into their second week, and participants are talking about the possibility of staying for several weeks more.

City leaders also have argued that the protests are political - and therefore should be accorded greater legal latitude. In response, the Chinatown homeless group has asserted that it too is making a political statement, by calling attention to the plight of the homeless.

We agree with the homeless advocates that their political message is every bit as coherent as any political statements coming from the Occupy Portland campsite.

But the concern here ought not to be which camp is more permanent, or which group has the more compelling political cause. Rather, the issue is one of equal application of laws and regulations. The city either should enforce its rules against camping on public property, or it should forget those rules and allow both groups to stay.

We prefer the former course of action - stricter adherence to the laws - because we think too many street people already are hurting the image and business atmosphere downtown. But either way, the city must be consistent and not look for artificial excuses to pursue either preferential treatment or selective enforcement of the rules.