The citys campaign against Portlands homeless community will be ratcheted up another notch once the Portland Police Bureau enacts its new plan to sweep the homeless out of the I-405 corridor. The city asserts the proposed sweep is intended to get the homeless connected with social services while rooting out a growing crime problem. Homeless advocates are concerned, however, that the new plan will not only move more homeless into downtown doorways, but will further criminalize people for not having a place to live.
Local authorities claim that this process is not meant to criminalize the homeless, but is a means by which to direct them to needed social services, states Rachel Langford, a volunteer with Sisters of the Road Cafe. The problem with this is that the existing social services for the homeless in Portland are overburdened and under-funded.
Last month, the Portland Police Bureau unveiled the sweep plan to crossroads, a homeless peoples organization and a project of Sisters of the Road Café. The plan calls for intensified enforcement of trespassing laws on Oregon Department of Transportation properties along the I-405 freeway from SW Market St. to NW Hoyt St. Vacant land along the freeway and under freeway underpasses serve as home for a significant number of homeless during the winter, possibly 100 or more according to advocacy groups.
According to Portland Police Bureau Commander Rosie Sizer, the new plan came about as a result of work by an officer assigned to a car prowl (police jargon for car break-in) project who was developing crime reduction strategies for the Goose Hollow area.
We were finding areas along the corridor linked to livability crimes we were finding purses, wallets and other accoutrements from car prowl activities, states Sizer. Our goal was to be more systematic about the way we chronicle warnings given to people in that area.
Under present law, a police officer may only cite someone for trespassing if they found the person on the property at least once before and issued a warning at that time. The new plan would allow officers to issue a warning for all ODOT property the first time they find someone trespassing. The individuals name would then be entered into a database. Anyone found on ODOT property who is already in the database can be immediately cited with Criminal Trespass II by any officer, not just the one who issued the original warning. According to Sizer, the only difference this new system would bring would be a more effective handling of warnings and citations. Citing a trespasser would no longer rely on the ability of an officer to remember a face she or he had seen months before.
A charge of Criminal Trespass II carries a $600 fine; however, these cases will be directed to community court where, if found guilty, the homeless person will be assigned community service. Such service is not necessarily easier than jail time for homeless people according to Dan Newth, a member of the homeless community and a writer for street roots:
It is very difficult for a homeless person to complete community service because it takes time to wait in a soup kitchen line; it takes time to wait in line for a shower and clean clothes. The community service set up through the community courts does not acknowledge the time it takes to do these things. Two or three days of not eating or showering is enough to discourage a person from showing up for community service. This leads to a warrant for arrest, which ends up with the person being processed through the county jail. Enforcement of trespassing and anti-camping laws puts an increased financial burden on both city and county governments and the taxpayers who support them, and does not address the root causes of any of these problems.
Homeless advocates do not have an exact count of how many people will be displaced by the sweep, but some estimates run in the hundreds. During winter months there are 630 emergency shelter beds available to the homeless. This falls far short of need. A one-night shelter count made last year showed 445 persons turned away for lack of space. Last April, the advocacy group JOIN conducted a one-night street count that turned up over 1,600 people sleeping outside.
Shelter space, of course, is only a temporary solution and falls
short of meeting the needs of many of the homeless. As Sisters of the Road
Café staff member Jamie Manuel points out, the homeless community,
including those living along the I-405 corridor, is not limited to unemployed
single males. Adults, children and families employed and unemployed
who in the long-term need more than shelter space seek out locations
like downtown Portlands freeway for lack of other alternatives.
The city currently suffers from an inadequate stock of rental units for households falling within the 0-30 percent average median income range households most in need of support. According to the Bureau of Housing and Community Develop-ments Consolidation Plan for 2000-2005, only 10,441 rental units exist for 22,667 households in that income range in Multnomah County. Urban renewal projects in downtown Portland have eroded the total stock of available housing for the poor in the downtown area. Elsewhere, projects like the Housing Authority of Portlands HOPE VI revitalization of Columbia Villa public housing temporarily displaces hundreds of low income households, adding further pressure on already scarce stock.
The proposed sweep also threatens to put the homeless on a collision course with downtown businesses once again.
If you flush folks out of unused property like the corridor, people will sleep in doorways, states Sisters of the Road Cafés Manuel. This will only heighten the conflict between the business community and the homeless community thats not any kind of solution.
Displacement is not really an issue according to Sizer. The police commander claims that while she respects the work of crossroads, Sisters of the Road Café and other advocacy groups, she doesnt believe the numbers involved in the I-405 corridor are that great.
We sent graveyard shift officers out to take a census of the population in the corridor, states Sizer. They said they found eight people. They also found drug paraphernalia and other evidence of criminal activity.
Sizer states that there had already been a drop in car prowls as soon as the police began working with ODOT on improving the landscaping and other features along the corridor to make the property less friendly to the homeless. Things like replacement of large shrubs with smaller ones and ground cover helped eliminate shelters. Sizer estimates these design measures reduced car prowls by as much as 50 percent. But the commander was unable to say how many car prowls are taking place in the I-405 corridor area beyond saying there are dozens and dozens.
Regardless of the reported reason for the new sweep or the numbers affected, it represents yet another move by the city to make life even more difficult for the homeless. The mayors mean-spirited commitment to enforce the citys anti-camping ordinance keeps the homeless from making use of the citys public spaces while sidewalks are off limits due to the recently passed sit-lie ordinance.
The homeless community hopes that public pressure will move Mayor Katz to keep the plan on hold. As advocates point out, the mayor, who is also police commissioner, is in a unique position to stop this plan as well as to see more resources allocated for the homeless. Whether the mayor, who has taken the lead in promoting anti-homeless ordinances in order to firm up her support in the business community will be willing to make such a change remains to be seen.
Even should Mayor Katz push for more low income housing a step everyone should still hope she takes it will still represent a stopgap measure rather than the foundation for long-term solutions. Reaching those solutions will require a dramatic change in how we view the homeless and other poor as well as in how we distribute limited resources among all Portlanders. We can continue to curry favor with corporate elites by squandering the common wealth through corporate subsidies, tax breaks and other ill-advised schemes or we can reinvest in our neighborhoods and in the people who currently or at one time did create the wealth in the first place.
Dave Mazza is editor of The Portland Alliance.
The Portland Alliance
2807 SE Stark Portland,OR 97214
Last Updated: March 4, 2003