The mayor's "Street Access for Everyone" (SAFE) committee wants to make it illegal to obstruct Portland's sidewalks in "high-pedestrian areas," according to their draft recommendations—due to be voted on by city council on December 13.
"We're not targeting homeless people, but opening the sidewalks," says Central Precinct Commander Mike Reese.
Reese has sat on the SAFE committee since its inception in May. The committee was convened in response to concerns from downtown business owners about aggressive panhandling, public drinking, intimidation, and sidewalk obstruction—meanwhile, the city's controversial Sit-Lie Ordinance will expire in November.
The original sit-lie ordinance was supposed to expire on June 15, but the council extended it—thanks to lobbying from the Portland Business Alliance (PBA). The PBA was also expected to push for a stricter ordinance. "Members of the downtown business and residential communities regularly indicate to us that the criminal behavior intended to be controlled by the ordinance has only worsened since its passage," the PBA's Mike Kuykendall wrote to the city in May.
But the new sidewalk obstruction ordinance does not appear draconian: It allows police to give people a warning for blocking the sidewalk, before sending them to the Multnomah County Community Court for community service. Other recommendations currently on the table to complement the ordinance are a provision for more benches downtown; reopening public bathrooms that are currently closed (and staffing them with a full-time security guard); and opening a new downtown Day Access Center with the capacity to provide services for 150 homeless people.
"The goal is to open an area where folks can get cleaned up, watch movies, read, and have services available from county health providers, Central City Concern, Transition Projects, and JOIN—working on transitioning homeless people into the [city's] 10-year plan [to end homelessness]," says Reese.
Representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Oregon Law Center have been involved in the drafting of the recommendations, although neither organizations were available for comment by press time.
"We really focused on sidewalk access, not the homeless," says Maria Rubio, policy manager at the mayor's office and co-chair of the SAFE committee. "There was a lot of discussion about downtown cultural norms— that people coming in from outside may not be used to the downtown environment—and about protecting civil liberties of individuals. But I do think we are coming along, and we're reaching a consensus."