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Hall Monitor

What the "Street Kids" Have to Say

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"ANNE" AND "NICK" sat downtown on a recent weekday, perched on the scant strip of curb-hugging sidewalk that Portland allots to people with nowhere better to go. The spot where they laid out their small cardboard sign, on SW 3rd, had been deliberately picked to minimize the ire of tourists and shopkeepers.

They know what they look like. And they know the names people call them, names like "road warriors" and "street kids."

"We get it. We smell bad," Anne says. "We want to take a shower. There's just no place to do it."

In town for a just few days, they say they'll be out in a few more, heading east. After a hard road overcoming dope habits, Anne and Nick hold onto a basic rule as they wander the country: Never linger anywhere long enough to rebuild the familiar triangle of addiction—from campsite to begging corner to dealer and back—that used to pin them down.

"We stay a couple of days and then leave," Anne says. "I don't see the harm in that. As long as you're not a leech."

But in Portland, pretty soon, that self-awareness may not matter.

Because big business is winning its war against "street kids" of all stripes—and anyone else forced to call the city's sidewalks their home.

That crusade, led by the Portland Business Alliance (PBA), took a major step forward last week when the Oregon House of Representatives passed a bill, HB 2963, meant to revive Portland's old "sit-lie" laws. Then, days later, the Oregonian's conservative-toned opinion pages followed with a blunt editorial urging the Senate to follow suit. Harsh sidewalk rules, it said, are "a good thing."

I asked Anne and Nick what they thought about that. They're not so convinced—and not for any of the self-interested reasons you might presume.

They've spent enough time in cities like San Francisco, where it's still illegal to sit or lie down on a sidewalk, to have learned something. Junkies and addicts and aggressive panhandlers—precisely the kinds of people the business lobby fears—abound as much as ever. "But now," Anne says, "they just stand."

And selective targeting by cops and security guards—precisely what homelessness advocates in Portland fear—remains an unforgiving reality.

"You're not allowed to be in public spaces," Nick says, "if you look homeless."

So what should Portland do? Anne and Nick have some thoughts on that, too.

They get that Portland has an issue with "lots of junkie kids who come here because they think the dope is good. Even though it's not." One of those kids was a few blocks away—world-weary and trying to charm pedestrians while also hiding a syringe in his pocket.

But where, they wonder, are the resources to help those kids climb past their addictions and into something better? Not just free meals, so you get comfortable using. But job training. And programs with social workers who don't judge you and make you feel "scared or uncomfortable" or generally like shit.

"Maybe," Nick says, "they should work more on that."

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