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It's not a crime to be homeless

Two Views • Extend or end the city's 'sit-lie' ordinance?
by: L.E. BASKOW, A man sleeps atop his bags along Southwest Ninth Avenue in downtown Portland as the lunch crowd streams by. A downtown business owner and homeless advocate offer differing views on a controversial ordinance that bans sitting or lying on the city’s sidewalks.

Portland's sit-lie ordinance (sidewalk obstruction ordinance) is counterintuitive, given the city's national reputation for its commitment to ending homelessness. The sit-lie law violates Portlanders' civil rights and is unfairly enforced against those of us who are dealing with homelessness.

Similar laws exist across the country where people experiencing homelessness and poverty are pushed out of public places. These laws move people along who have no other place to go. In Portland, you cannot sit or lie on a public sidewalk in the downtown, Old Town Chinatown, and Lloyd Center neighborhoods from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. without receiving a warning or a citation.

In May, the Portland City Council voted to extend the enforcement of the sit-lie law for five months to engage in community dialogue about the ordinance. In testimony to the council on April 29, dozens of individuals asked the following important questions: Why do we need to extend the ordinance in order to continue the dialogue? If we question its rightness, shouldn't we suspend the ordinance while we have the dialogue? Is the sit/lie law constitutional? Is this how we should spend our limited money? Where should people go if they have nowhere to go? Why are people without homes receiving the vast majority of citations and tickets?

One individual giving testimony gently suggested that if councilors would like to have a simulation of the experience of what it is like to be homeless in Portland, they should set their alarms for every 20 minutes, get up and walk around the block at each alarm (carrying a heavy bag), and then come back to sleep for 20 more minutes - but in a different spot than they had been sleeping before. It is not fair to punish someone who doesn't have a safe place to rest.

The Sisters Of The Road Cafe organization advocates for the repeal of the sit-lie ordinance. The services promised for the fair implementation of this ordinance have not been fully implemented - including a resource access center where many people could go during the day. The enforcement of the sit-lie ordinance is not only inhumane and immoral, it violates Portlanders' civil rights simply because they are poor.

There is a strong commitment to building and preserving affordable housing in Portland. We must maintain and strengthen that commitment, while recognizing that it isn't just an emergency locally - it's a crisis throughout the nation. Massive federal disinvestment in affordable housing has led to the epidemic of institutionalized homelessness. Portland is a recognized leader in progressive development and we need to inspire a response across the country.

We cannot, however, allow ourselves the complacency of inaction as our fellow citizens suffer and are criminalized for their homeless status. As we work for long-term solutions, we must act now to acknowledge the existence and humanity of all our citizens.

Homelessness is increasing. The 2009 Street Count in Portland/Multnomah County was 11 percent higher than the number counted in 2007. During the night of Jan. 28, this count identified 1,591 unduplicated persons who were sleeping outside. The systemic solution to homelessness is to secure safe, affordable housing for every Portlander sleeping in a doorway, a park, a car, a tent, behind or along side a building, under a bridge, in a parking structure, etc.

A commitment to ending homelessness requires no less. Because Portland belongs to all of us, we must repeal the sit-lie ordinance now. Please call on our mayor and city commissioners to take a stand for the rights of all in our community and get rid of the sit-lie ordinance.

For more information, go to www.sistersoftheroad.org or come by our cafe for a delicious meal and a beverage for $1.50, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. and talk to our customers and staff.

Monica Beemer is executive director of Sisters Of The Road Cafe in Old Town. She lives in Northeast Portland.