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Struggling to survive is not a criminal offense

My View: Choose words wisely; don't equate homelessness with lawlessness


Words are powerful, particularly when they come from City Hall and are accompanied by controversial and highly publicized government action.

The city’s recent effort to address issues of livability around City Hall and elsewhere in the central core have resulted in headlines and sound bites that have many Portlanders concerned that their elected leaders and police are equating homelessness with lawlessness.

In an Aug. 7 newspaper article, “Police begin sidewalk sweep of the homeless,” Mayor Charlie Hales is quoted as

saying, “This is about lawlessness.”

News articles and television coverage addressing this issue have further fueled the fire for anonymous online posters who relate their own anecdotal experiences and further perpetuate the harmful and misguided stereotype of persons struggling with homelessness as a largely criminal element.

The city’s Human Rights Commission encourages all involved in this ongoing dialogue regarding livability and opportunity in the downtown area to resist the impulse to paint in broad strokes when discussing and taking action regarding as diverse a population as our fellow Portlanders struggling with homelessness.

While the acts and statements of the mayor and other elected officials likely do not intend to label all Portlanders struggling with homelessness as lawless, these comments can be easily misconstrued as an endorsement of that notion, which is counterproductive to the work our city leaders and others have undertaken to find solutions to Portland’s housing crisis.

In times like these, where sound bites rule and the city’s words can be easily misconstrued, we would encourage our elected leaders to actively distinguish those who are intentionally violating the law from those who are dealing with homelessness and trying to balance the limited choices those circumstances present with strict compliance with laws that can be difficult to understand.

In doing so, we also call on our leaders to acknowledge the growing number of Portlanders who are legitimately struggling with housing insecurity and to pursue solutions to this crisis as aggressively, if not more so, as any effort to improve livability in the central city by removing perceived lawbreakers.

Finally, we call on the media to responsibly report the actions and statements of everyone involved in the effort to balance the rights of our homeless and others in the city of Portland. Although Hales, in his statements to the media, noted that the eviction of people violating city law was a “livability issue,” that was not as widely or prominently featured by the media as his statements regarding “lawlessness.”

The media’s presentation of the views our leaders espouse is what creates the framework for our understanding of those views. We hope they can be fairly and accurately presented so as not to exacerbate an already contentious problem.

We agree there is a legitimate need to address livability issues for all our citizens in the central city, including those without housing. We are wary, however, of any statement or action that equates homelessness with lawlessness.

By perpetuating an environment, even unintentionally, where “public safety” and “lawlessness” are issues directly associated with homelessness rather than crime itself, we are encouraging harmful images and stereotypes of an entire class of people as “dangerous” or “in disregard of the law.” It is wrong to do so.

Members of Portland’s homeless population are a diverse group of Portlanders who deserve respect and the right to be judged on an individual basis. In this climate, where words and actions can be misconstrued to suggest the opposite, Portland’s leaders should say loudly and clearly that this is so.

Portland’s Human Rights Commission works to eliminate discrimination and bigotry, to strengthen intergroup relationships and to foster greater understanding, inclusion and justice for those who live, work, study, worship, travel and play in Portland.