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City initiative brought help for homeless

POST SCRIPT • Controversial 'sit-lie' ordinance included aid for basic needs
by: Jim Clark, A man sleeps in the doorway of an empty office entryway in downtown Portland. Co-chairs of the former mayor’s SAFE committee write that the city’s ordinance prohibiting obstructing sidewalks includes help for the homeless.

Over the past two years, former Mayor Tom Potter's Street Access for Everyone, or SAFE, initiative has been the subject of considerable public debate, including a My View: 'Give the homeless alternatives, not citations' (Insight, Feb. 26) in the Tribune.

Too often, opponents of the initiative do not accurately describe what has occurred, especially regarding efforts to help homeless people with basic needs and provide them with alternatives to sitting on the sidewalk.

The SAFE agreement called for the simultaneous implementation of five elements, the first of which was a low-impact (compared to similar ordinances around the country) 'pedestrian obstruction' ordinance. This ordinance, commonly referred to as 'sit-lie,' is limited in scope: It applies only to downtown and in the Lloyd Center District from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., is a non-criminal offense with numerous exceptions and requires a written warning prior to any citation.

The other SAFE agreement elements were intended to address the ordinance's potential adverse impact on people who may have little alternative but to sit on the sidewalk with their belongings. This was an unprecedented effort to get at the root causes for why a homeless person might violate the ordinance.

An oversight committee composed of stakeholders with diverse perspectives was created to monitor ordinance enforcement and overall implementation of the seating alternatives and basic service commitments. Implementation has included:

• A new downtown day center for homeless women, open 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, and significantly expanded day space hours at Julia West House on the west edge of downtown; total daily capacity is 150.

• New showers and storage for homeless women at the downtown West Women's Shelter, significantly expanded access to showers and storage at Julia West (starting at 6 a.m.), and 20 additional showers a day at Transition Projects in Old Town/Chinatown.

• Additional restroom capacity and extended hours in all downtown park restrooms (now open 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.), seven more stalls available in different locations, including a 24-hour restroom.

• Thirty-one new benches in high pedestrian areas, 12 more going in this spring, yielding a total of 450 benches downtown.

Some aspects of implementation have not proceeded as quickly or completely as the Oversight Committee would have liked, and these are called out in our recent report to the Portland City Council. But suggestions that little or nothing has occurred are simply inaccurate.

With respect to ordinance enforcement, police officers have been trained to issue verbal and written warnings prior to citing anyone and to notify individuals of available services. They have issued an average of less than one citation per week to a total of 38 individuals, almost exclusively in identified 'hot spot' areas downtown.

It is true that a disproportionate number of warnings and citations have been issued to people who are homeless. It was also true that the ordinance was not being pro-actively used against sidewalk café and signboard owners lacking permits.

Both of these issues have caused concern to the Oversight Committee. But given the increased access to support services (day space, showers, public restrooms and benches), the challenges around enforcement do not demonstrate the ordinance is being used inappropriately to push homeless people out of downtown. The issues are discussed at length in our report, including recent efforts made to require sidewalk café and signboard compliance. We encourage anyone concerned about these issues to review the report.

The SAFE agreement was a compromise, and it embodies a more humane approach by seeking to balance the competing desires and needs of those using our public sidewalks. Any compromise of this sort is properly subject to public debate. But as the City Council prepares to consider renewing the SAFE initiative, it is vital that the debate be based on the best possible information about what is actually happening.

Monica Gorake of the Oregon Law Center and Mike Kuykendall of the Portland Business Alliance are SAFE Committee Co-chairs.