Police prepare to remove protesters from City Hall sidewalk

Police prepare to remove protesters from City Hall sidewalk »Play Video
Mayor Charlie Hales and Police Commander Bob Day speak at a press conference on Monday.

PORTLAND, Ore. – Maybe it was the people having sex on the sidewalk.

Or maybe it was the fighting. Or the drug use. Or the street-sweeper who was prevented from doing his job. Or all the people who said they were too intimidated to go inside to do business.

Whatever the final straw, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales said on Monday the city will be putting an end to sidewalk “camping” in front of City Hall.

“We’ve had 113 calls for (police) service (this year),” Hales said during a news conference. “We’ve had people trying to come into this building being harassed and having obscenities shouted at them. We’ve had people having sex on the sidewalk. That’s all not OK.

“We’re just going to try to make sure that the space that’s outside this building is clearly public space. No-one gets to appropriate any particular part of that public space for their own use, and that’ll be true once we regain control of the situation aside.”

The mayor’s office posted “notice of illegal camping signs” in front of the building last week, and police said they plan to begin enforcing the ordinances on Tuesday.

Portland Police Central Precinct Commander Bob Day said he expects most of the protesters will cooperate, but he’s ready for those that don’t.

“Occasionally, there’s somebody who wants to be arrested and if so, then we’ll facilitate that,” Day said.

“Our communication over the weekend has been that it’s time to move on, and they’ll hopefully abide by that.”

Some of the demonstrators said they’ve been protesting for better solutions to Portland’s homeless problem for almost two years.

“Why have they ignored us for 637 (days)?” said demonstrator Jose Serrica. “Over 637 (days) we've been out here. They've had 637 opportunities to sit out here and talk with some of the people who have solutions for homeless issues. But they refuse to let us sit at the table with them.”

The move comes just over a week after four protesters were arrested at Mount Tabor, a strategy Hales said comes increasingly into play.

“You can over-complicate this,” he said. “But if you look at the incident at Mount Tabor I think you see a preview of where we’re going with sidewalk management. That is, we have some ordinances on the books. Maybe they haven’t always been enforced consistently in the past – like, parks close at midnight and you can’t camp there. We’re going to enforce the laws that we have and talk later about the laws that we need to change.”

Hales apparently has plans for the area once it’s been cleared. Willamette Week reported he recently met with staffers in the city's facilities department to discuss adding food carts, coffee carts and tables to the City Hall plaza and lobby.

In the meantime, Hales said he’s working closely with social-service providers to help the homeless – including those camped in front of City Hall.

“We’re a kind-hearted city,” Hales said. “We’re going to continue to do the right thing for people that need help, for people that lost their jobs, or suffer from mental illness. But we’re also going to enforce the law. So, both hands need to be working in order for this to be a livable place.”

The Fine Line Between 'Sleeping' and 'Camping'

There is always one thing we hear from those who hang out in front of City Hall day after day and night after night - "sleep is a human right."

City leaders are trying to be clear - they won't stop anyone from sleeping in front of City Hall. But camping is a different story.

What's the distinction?

Resting at night is one thing, but planting roots is another. Basically, once it goes beyond a bedroll to a bag of stuff, a shopping cart, a bicycle or even a dog - it becomes a camp.

So the message to the homeless is that they can sleep there at night if they want, but they shouldn't have so much stuff that they can't pack up and leave in the morning.

"They may lay down their sleeping bag or bedroll at nine o'clock at night and sleep there," said Sgt. Pete Simpson with the Portland Police Bureau. "They will be in compliance with the law."

The key is what happens in the morning. At 7 a.m., police will start enforcing sidewalk obstruction laws so those who do business at City Hall can do so without a camp in the way.