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Give the homeless alternatives, not citations

Our View • City progresses little in providing new services, but writes loads of citations
by: L.E. BASKOW, A woman readies to leave the Rovente Pizzaria near the transit mall in downtown Portland after sitting there for some time. A group of Oregon Health Health & Science University nursing students who have worked with the city’s homeless write that the city has been slow in providing improved services, including access to 24-hour public restrooms and shower facilities.

We are nursing students at Oregon Health and Science University who spent 10 weeks late last year working with the homeless population in downtown.

As Portland voters, we are concerned with the lack of very basic resources for homeless citizens in the downtown area. Specifically, we are concerned with the adoption of the sit/lie ordinance and the role of both the Portland mayor's office and the Portland Business Alliance in its implementation.

In mid-2007, the City Council implemented the Sidewalk Access for Everyone - also known as SAFE - committee recommendations. While the committee had grand ideas and was presumably considering everyone's rights, the SAFE recommendations have been detrimental to homeless people in Portland.

The recommendations included a day access service center, additional public bench seating, access to 24-hour public restrooms and shower and locker facilities. Additionally, the recommendations specified that people should be prohibited from sitting or lying on any public sidewalk between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.

It is now 2009 and very little progress has been made regarding additional seating, restrooms, showers and locker facilities. While Portland has opened one new public restroom, homeless people are still struggling to find places to attend to their basic sanitary needs. Additionally, they have nowhere to go during the day, as many shelters are closed during the day. Therefore, they spend time on the sidewalks and in the parks.

However, despite the failure of most of the SAFE recommendations, one has made headway in the past year; the sit/lie ordinance has been heavily enforced throughout downtown Portland. The majority of citations that have been issued under the guidelines of the sit/lie ordinance have been given to homeless people and the homeless appear to be unfairly targeted by the law.

If homeless people are not allowed to hang out on the streets during the day, where are they supposed to go? There are not enough day centers in Portland to accommodate the large homeless population, not enough low-income housing to help people get off the streets, and not enough beds in shelters to keep people from having to sleep under bridges.

The sit/lie ordinance is effective at pushing the homeless out of public view, but this is not helping to solve the underlying problems that are at the root of homelessness.

Until Portland can come up with a plan to help the homeless find housing, the sit/lie ordinance needs to be repealed. If Portland cannot at least offer day centers, showers and lockers for the homeless to use, the city should not tell the homeless that they are not welcome to spend their days on the street.

Portland needs to come up with a viable alternative and actually follow through with the plan; until then, we cannot continue to punish the homeless for being homeless. We urge city leaders to review the sit/lie ordinance and organize a committee to find a better alternative.

Marisa Agotsch, Sarah Kincaid, Michele Sharp and Anne Stark are nursing students at Oregon Health and Science University.