Fight to end homelessness, but lose sit-lie

Editorial from Anna Griffin of the Oregonian, July 31 2009

Clayton Lance isn’t some pinko, Communist, civil libertarian do-gooder.

The St. Helens lawyer earns a good living, usually representing paying clients accused of serious crimes like murder, assault or driving the getaway car for skater Nancy Kerrigan’s attackers.

But when another lawyer asked for research help about Portland’s “sit-lie law,” he got curious. Wasn’t that thing ruled unconstitutional? he wondered. Why am I still hearing about it?

Lance went to a coffee shop to read up on the law, which bans sitting or resting on certain Portland sidewalks. Then he called soup kitchens, looking for someone cited under the law who needed a lawyer.

“It was just so obvious that they couldn’t legally do what they were trying,” Lance said. “I didn’t even have time to finish my coffee before I figured that out.”

And yet, here’s a prediction: Sometime soon, the Portland City Council will again try to prevent sitting on the sidewalk as a way to address police and shopkeeper complaints about panhandlers and vagrants. Soon after that, a judge will throw the law out.

It has happened twice in five years. Each time, courts declared the law unconstitutional. Last month, a judge tossed the civil complaint against Lance’s eventual client, 31-year-old panhandler Katherine Perkins.

Judges, it turns out, don’t appreciate laws limiting the right to peaceful assembly. They tend to frown on attempts to punish everyday behavior that no reasonable person would consider a crime.

To be clear, our sidewalks require work. Particularly in nice weather, central Portland resembles a combination living room/Motel 6 for street kids and panhandlers. Downtown businesses need help competing against suburban shops, where customers can usually reach their destination without being bugged by requests for spare change, the stench of urine and sweat or other reminders that poverty and mental illness really do exist.

City leaders, however, haven’t figured out how to do that without singling out the homeless. Plenty of restaurants offer sidewalk seating without proper permits. TriMet riders violate the ordinance all the time by slouching to the pavement while awaiting buses or trains. Yet in its first 13 months, almost 75 percent of those receiving sit-lie warnings or citations were homeless.

Courts have rejected similar bans across the country. Judges seem inclined to allow them only when cities take extraordinary steps to shelter everyone who wants it, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

As a city, we haven’t done that. Yes, taxpayers have spent millions to fight homelessness, but the focus is on permanent housing. A court fight over urban renewal spending has delayed a planned $45 million day center for homeless men and women. The City Council has added benches, showers and public toilets, but not as fast as advocates hoped.

There will always be people who opt for the streets. The challenge is to shrink the population as much as possible with shelters and services before giving police legal tools to move those who remain.

That’s going to take something like Miami’s meal tax, which generates about $9 million annually to fight homelessness, or Seattle’s affordable housing levy, which voters will consider extending this fall to raise $145 million over seven years.

Special taxes to help the poor: Can you imagine that happening here?

More likely, city leaders will do more well-intentioned talking, then take another stab at a sidewalk law.

And more lawyers will be like Lance, who says his firm will defend for free anyone cited under sit lie:

Eager to do some pinko, Communist, civil libertarian good.