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Homeless speak out at Gresham City Council meeting

Citizens criticize, praise city's actions to close off Gresham Woods


OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Homeless advocate and activist Kif Davis holds up a sign before the Gresham City Council Tuesday afternoon at city hall.A homeless population bubbling with anger over the city of Gresham’s recent move to fence off an area along the Springwater Trail — closing it to campers and the general public — hijacked Tuesday night's City Council meeting to get their stories heard.

The conference center in City Hall, 1333 N.W. Eastman Parkway, was standing-room only during the meeting. Some held signs that read “Show compassion” and “No Justice, No Peace.”

For nearly an hour, the council heard stories from homeless people who say they've been deeply affected by the city's actions.

“This is my home. I’ve been here for 17 years of my life. Why should I have to move?” said Melanie Rosenthal. “I can say that I am honestly trying to work toward a better future and most of us in this room are doing that. Most of the parks and recreation areas shouldn’t be taken up like that, but at the same time, where do we have to go? Honestly, there is no where else for us to go.”

The orange plastic fence, which cost the city $12,000, has been in place for about two weeks, closing a 60-acre parcel along the trail known as Gresham Woods. City officials said $350,000 worth of restoration work was destroyed. In the first days of the fence going up, it was vandalized and torn down. On Friday, March 4, police found 36 people trespassing, gave warnings to eight of them and arrested another three.

Some homeowners along the Springwater Trail praised the city for attempting to clear the area of campers.

“I lived adjacent to the Gresham Woods for 43 years and would like to thank all the council members for taking a tour and seeing the destruction,” said Scott Moulton. He said a group of “so-called sovereign citizens’ had set up camp just across Johnson Creek and “has threatened the life of everyone in my family at our home while we were on our deck. "It’s not right."

John Macklin, a neighbor of Moulton’s, also thanked the council for fencing off Gresham Woods.

“As you know, this was not a few tents tucked in here and there,” Macklin said. “There’s a lot of solutions to address the homeless issue, but abandoning our open spaces and watching the city atmosphere go down the drain and having our livability ruined is not a solution at all. Thank you for taking some action instead of no action like other cities.”

But criticism continued to flow from those who were displaced.

Steve Kimes, who runs Anawim Christian Community, a church and day shelter for the homeless, criticized the city for its sweeps of Gresham Woods.

“Tell them to move, and you don’t have a place to move them to, what you’re actually telling them is they don’t have a right to exist,” Kimes said. “When you ticket people for sleeping, you’re telling them that they don’t have a right to sleep.

“The thing is that the plans that have been made for the homeless haven’t been made with the homeless," Kimes continued. "The Gresham Woods could have been picked up, and it could have been a really nice place if the homeless had been engaged instead of moved. When you treat people like citizens, they will act like citizens. When you treat people like criminals, they will act like criminals.”

At one point, Chris Cozzetto, who runs a group called Powell Valley Green Collective and said he organized the dozens who came to the meeting, stood up and yelled at the councilors that they were not treating Gresham citizens fairly.

“These people here are disadvantaged," he said. "Unlike the city of Gresham, who can change rules and codes whenever they feel like when it doesn’t suit their needs, these citizens of your city don’t have this same privilege. When things don’t work, they can just change the laws and change the rules. It’s not acceptable that the city can just stand up and say, ‘We’re going to fence off this area.'"

“I want you to look at these people and consider their stories,” Cozzetto added, prompting a response from Mayor Shane Bemis.

“You’re assuming that we haven’t,” Bemis fired back, to which someone in the audience yelled “Bull----!”

One woman chimed in, “Can you look over here? We’re humans.”

Kif Davis, who held a sign that read “Fight the Sweeps,” suggested that the city buy up homes that banks have foreclosed upon to house the homeless.

“There’s plenty of money, and you guys need to fix the problem.” Davis said.

Jessie Sponberg, who is running for mayor of Portland, encouraged Gresham not to make the same mistakes he believes that city has made.

“I came here today to give you guys a warning from the future,” Sponberg said. “Ten years ago I was going to a meeting very similar to this in Portland and 10 years later what have we in Portland learned? We learned putting up orange fences doesn’t work. We learned sweeps don't work. In 2006, these aren’t bums and bag ladies and hobos. These are economic refugees.

"These are families with children and they are economic refugees," the candidate added, "and they need economic refugee settlements in live in.”

Below is a photo gallery from Monday's council meeting at Gresham City Hall.

OUTLOOK PHOTOS: JOSH KULLA

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Mary Macquire, a homless resident of east Multnomah County, speaks Tuesday before the Gresham City Council.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Gresham City Councilor Mario Palmeiro listens to homeless advocates Tuesday, while Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis sits behind him.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Kif Davis, a Portland area activist and advocate for the homeless walks away from the Gresham City Council Tuesday after demonstrating his displeasure with city policy toward homeless residents.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis reacts Tuesday to criticism of the city's policy toward homeless residents. Gresham homeless advocate Chris Cozzetto is in the foreground at left.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - East Multnoman County homeless residents and advocates crowded into a Gresham City Council meeting Tuesday to protest city policy.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - A young man who declined to give his name holds up a sign reading 'No justice, no peace,' Tuesday at a Gresham City Council meeting.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Gresham resident Chris Cozzetto turns to the audience after criticizing city policy toward the homeless. Gresham city council members are at right.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Homeless Gresham resident David Skokoe watches from the audience Monday at a meeting of the Gresham City Council.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis (Center) listens to homeless advocates Tuesday.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Activist Kif Davis, left, films Gresham resident Scott Moulton as Molden describes the damage done to Gresham Woods by campers.