Portland’s Homeless Still Suffer Without a Right to a Tent or a Tarp; City Council Resisting Compassionate Change in Law

March 20, 2010

NOTE: a vigil will be held at St. Vincent de Paul Downtown Chapel on Wed., March 31st at 2 pm — to remember all who have died on Portland’s streets this winter.

UPDATE: Six long cold rainy months have passed since City Commissioner Nick Fish promised the Oregon Law Center, an Oregonian reporter, the homeless people of Portland, and their allies (for the umpteenth time) that he would modify the City’s strict (and clearly un-constitutional) camping ban. His Office has had a succession of excuses, each of them either untrue or truth mixed with lies.

Commissioner Fish is in charge of the “Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness,” so of course many believe him when he promises to do something. But this is ongoing injustice. This is justice delayed and thus denied — on a systematic, ongoing basis — for thousands suffering outside. This depriving of poor people of their rights — to simply sleep in a dry tent or under a tarp, and to just be left alone (even when in out-of-the way places, doing no harm), and to be free from unreasonable seizure of  their only possessions by police —  is  constitutionally and morally WRONG. Nick Fish is an attorney who knows all about civil rights.

Mr. Fish knows better. This delay in modifying the camping ban speaks volumes about which side of the civil rights struggle he’s working for.   These ongoing injustices are being permitted day and night by City Council leaders who don’t care enough to have stopped it by now.

Perhaps a dozen people have died waiting for the simple right to put a tarp or tent over their heads so they can sleep. Hundreds more have suffered the onset of mental illness for the first time, because of the ongoing sleeplessness and fear which accompanies their homelessness — in a town where police treat them like dogs.

Our homeless friend George grew up in Portland. He died during that record cold weather of December. George was never one to ask for anything. He reported that police had taken his tent in late November, but said he was getting another.

Our friend George died near the Lloyd Center during that week-long, terrible cold spell here in December. He often refused to go to a shelter because, he would say, “If I really hussle and do get in there, that leaves someone else out.”  In Portland today, a thousand more shivering people are still alive, without any shelter — tired, and waiting.

Without options, still forced to sleep outside, they are afraid of the Portland Police. Ask any homeless person you see whether  they aren’t afraid or very cautious. It’s a tiny minority of the homeless who have “chosen” that kind of life these days. Thugs often harass the homeless when police don’t. One homeless man was murdered not far from Fred Meyer’s at 30th & Weidler in late January.

Worst of all, the homeless are afraid of police harassment.

So many have lost their possessions in sweeps. The Portland Police have used every excuse to throw out the supposedly helpful “gentleperson’s agreement” worked out to appease the Oregon Law Center. They nightly make their rounds harassing poor people who have no options (knowing these folks can’t afford lawyers).

When homeless people are awakened, they sometimes try to sit, awake, on out-of-the-way parts of the sidewalks. The then police consistently lie, saying that they are in the way (when clearly often not), or else the Police say  that violence or drugs were happening. We have filmed sweeps where there were clearly no violations of law happening (not even by the new ADA standard re/ sidewalks), yet this is consistently in the reports of police the reason for the forcing people off of sidewalks.

We have seen and filmed this over-reach, these violations of the City’s new ‘Sidewalk Management Plan.’  Most people in Portland know that bullying is rampant among Police here. The City Council is enabling these unconstitutional abuses through their omissions.  And Nick Fish in particular is responsible for the ongoing suffering and some deaths of thousands of homeless people for his having dragged his feet and avoided modifying the camping ban — all the while showing the most professional courtesy to the Oregon Law Center and the Court where the City is being sued for its cruelty.

Sleeping "legally" in Irvington, this man is not blocking the sidewalk, and not covering himself with a tarp, tent or other covering. The police came and told him he had to leave anyway.

In the coming weeks -sooner or later — likely before his re-election bid starts making news — Nick Fish will tell the Portland Business Alliance something like this: “Sorry my rich supportive friends, but we held them off as long as we could. The lawsuit has been drawn out as long as our City Attorneys could, but… We now need to modify the ban, before some liberal bleeding-heart judge lifts the ban altogether!”

Actions do speak louder than words.

Maybe next week they will offer a settled modification of the ban. At that point, the set of problems outlined in the November Archive will need to be discussed. Please be prepared to go to City Council when the camping issue comes up, and advocate for all of the homeless people who will not be given permission to camp on private property! MOST will likely not be given such permission. Fish will be proposing a ‘night time only’ camping privilege — from 9 pm to 7 am, REGARDLESS OF WEATHER. This is foolishness. If Portland Police enforced the letter of the new law (and you know they will), then that means people will get wet every morning at 7 AM when forced to pack up and move. Move where?! There are not enough day warming centers either. There is not enough space in the libraries, or under the eves at Goodwill… These people will get wet, and they will stay wet. They will remain tired and often get sick and sometimes commit crimes of desperation.

Please watch for this issue to come before the City Council. Come and speak! Meantime, write to the newspapers, and talk to your neighbors and friends. Let’s demand a better policy than the one they are likely to propose. See the City Council Agenda and times at: http://www.portlandonline.com/auditor/index.cfm?c=26997

Note: the City Auditor’s Office updates the Agenda each Friday for the upcoming week, so there is a good ‘heads up’ time.

Please get familiar with the camping/ alternative sheltering issues if you like, by reading Dignity Advocate’s October Archive here at: https://dignityadvocate.wordpress.com/2009/10/

Joe Anybody blogs about the same issues at: http://joe-anybody.blogspot.com/2010/01/lawsuit-due-to-portlands-anti-camping.html

Street Roots reported recently about this at: http://streetroots.wordpress.com/2010/02/05/camping-lawsuit-talks-stall-as-new-rules-hang-in-the-balance/

By the way – it is NOT true what Commissioner Fish keeps saying to justify the delay. Just because a law is under suit, and the City in settlement negotiations, does NOT mean that they can not modify the camping ban in the meantime. They are looking for a way to loosen the ban as little as possible, is all, and want to know exactly how much the judge in the Anderson case might require before they act.

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