Saturday, February 08, 2014

SEPARATING HOMELESSNESS FROM MANAGEMENT OF OUR PUBLIC SPACES

I'll begin this post with a statement, because I know what some people will think if I don't clarify.

This post is not against homeless people. I support every effort to help people get off the streets and into housing and employment, or to get whatever assistance they need. 

This post is about management of public spaces. Public spaces in the city include sidewalks, streets and parks. In our neighborhood of southeast Portland we struggle with issues of management of public spaces. We are not the only neighborhood of Portland with these issues; however, the press and the city government focus on these issues in the downtown core and generally do not acknowledge that these are city-wide problems.

Our neighborhood includes an arterial street, SE Hawthorne Boulevard, that supports many businesses, mostly small businesses.  Hawthorne, particularly what I call the middle section, is a vibrant street with many small shops, restaurants, coffee houses and a large bookstore. There are also a couple of supermarkets, a movie theater-pub, live entertainment venues (music and acrobatic theater). It's a terrific neighborhood in which to do business and live, but we're having problems. Most of our neighborhood problems are related to management of public spaces, or, more accurately, lack of such management.

The summer of 2013 was, for most of us, the worst summer in many years because of the street scene. Below are a few images to illustrate the issues.

The bus stop at the busiest intersection. 

The City built an extra-wide sidewalk and bike shelter that is primarily used as a hang-out by street people.

Need a place to dump your garbage? How about the public sidewalk?

The City required a stormwater swale and landscaping for a small commercial parking lot. It is used as a storage space for bedrolls and, in this case, a couch, and as a trash dump by street people.

A closeup of the stormwater swale - garbage dump. The property owner has to clean this up.
Keep in mind that I'm not picking on any individuals; everyone has a story about who they are and why they are here. What I'm talking about is using public spaces in ways that are respectful of everyone else using those spaces, and of the space itself. There are many different types of people in the group we generally refer to as "the homeless." Many of them, probably most of them, would rather not live on the streets. There are, however, those who choose to be on the street as a lifestyle choice; and yes, I know this because I've talked to people who make that choice.

The impact of the behavior shown in these photos is felt by everyone who lives in or visits our neighborhood. Some merchants have told me that customers have let them know that they don't like coming here anymore because of the street scene. Many parents don't like walking their children on Hawthorne anymore because of the open drinking, pot smoking, garbage, big dogs and sometimes aggressive panhandlers. Store owners and managers have told me that they frequently have to clean up human feces left in front of their store during the night. They also regularly pick up the garbage left by street people and sometimes have to wake them up and ask them not to block the doorway. Many merchants also object to people setting up tables or blankets on the sidewalk and selling jewelry, drawings or other items; these also block our very narrow (substandard width) sidewalks.

We also have an issue in the residential part of the neighborhood. People who are referred to as "travelers" use our residential streets as a RV park for the camper vans and old school buses in which they live. They live in these vehicles parked on the public street, and hang out on Hawthorne during the day. This brings noise, trash, drug dealing and partying into the residential neighborhood.

Portland has become a mecca for street people, especially during summer when many travel here to hang out and enjoy the vibe. The City has tried numerous times to control the street scene by passing ordinances that regulate how sidewalks can be used. These regulations typically have tried to give police the tools needed to move people along if they are blocking the sidewalk, being aggressive towards others, or for having other generally unwanted behaviors.  This has not worked well. Court rulings have found the City regulations in violation of the Oregon Constitution or state laws. Advocates for homeless people have battled with the City and downtown businesses, taking the position that the City should do more to help people on the street, and that these laws discriminate against the homeless.

In my view, it's too easy, and very disingenuous, to take the position that every attempt to get the street scene under control is an attempt to discriminate against homeless people. I'm a middle class person who lives in a home. If I chose to spend my days sitting and sleeping on the sidewalk on Hawthorne I should expect the police to ask me to move on. Yes, I have a home I can hang out in and truly homeless people don't. I support government stepping up the efforts to get every homeless person and family into housing; this has been proven to be the most important step in assisting the homeless. I would gladly pay my share of taxes to make this happen. But the lack of enough housing doesn't mean we should simply allow any and all kinds of behavior in our public spaces.

I'm tired of the street scene, the trash, the people using my residential street as a RV park, the negative impact to local businesses, and the negative impact to my property value. I'm tired of people thinking that I live in a run-down and dangerous area because of what they see when they visit me. I'm tired of feeling invaded every summer by people who want to abuse the privileges of citizenship and just "do their own thing." An acquaintance of mine who sells the newspaper Street Roots in our neighborhood put it this way: "There are people who are givers, and people who are takers. We need to get the takers to move on, and focus on helping the people who want to contribute to our neighborhood."

I know that advocates for the homeless will dismiss this post as that of someone who is a heartless and mean person who doesn't like people who are homeless. To these people, my desire to maintain a certain standard of livability in my neighborhood is a position to be ridiculed. These folks are missing the point.

We have organized our neighborhood to work with city government on these issues. We're not overly optimistic because we've tried this before, as have many others, and things have continued to get worse. There needs to be a solution to this problem. Certainly the majority of Portlanders can get to agreement on a set of standards of behavior for the use of public spaces. There are City ordinances that regulate the use of public spaces, but these are usually not enforced because the City has decided not to enforce them.  In my view, there are two separate issues at play: one is how we use public spaces - and by "we" I mean everyone. The second is the issue of homelessness and how to address it.

In our society, we need to attack the root causes of homelessness and guarantee that every person has a place to live and a means of supporting themselves or getting the assistance they need if they cannot do it alone. But to those people who are part of the negative street scene because they want to live off the grid or outside the norm and take advantage of everyone else, I want them to get a loud and clear message: that's great, but keep moving because you can't do that in Portland, Oregon.

Your comments are welcomed; please keep them civil.
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3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Paul.. You and I have certainly disagreed in many areas of politics.. I am delighted to say that I LOVED your post... (I hope that doesn't mean that you will remove it!!!)

Steveya

Paul said...

I thought seriously about deleting it after reading your comment.....but seriously. Do you have these issues in your socialist country? I'm trying to remember if I've seen this kind of street scene when I've been there in the big cities.

Rainbojangles said...

Hi, Paul. I'm glad you posted the photos. Thankfully it's not always that bad, but it needs to be proactively addressed and I applaud your efforts to that end. Hopefully with some cooperation among all involved we can have a more amicable experience for everyone on the boulevard this summer.

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