Thursday, January 18, 2007

A Sit-Down With Sten About Sit-Lie

"Hello?" I said inquisitively, at the "private caller" on my phone.
"Hi. It's Eric."
"Erik Sten."
"Oh, ERIK. Hey!"
I had been expecting a staffer to get back to me. I was seeking a followup to Amanda Fritz's question about why the hearing on the SAFE task force recommendations had been postponed from Wednesday's agenda. Amanda's piece has the background if you need it; I was just trying to find out why it was postponed, under the mysterious "need for additional testimony." Whose? Why? So I was a touch thrown to get a midday call from Commissioner Sten.

Ironically those original questions didn't get answered (although he did have a theory on the 2nd one that I need to check out with Potter's office), but Sten was in a talkative mood about a subject I'd found him curiously low-key on recently. After all, as he put it early on in our talk, he 'made a thing' out of homelessness and homeless issues in the last election. Why has Potter directed so much of the SAFE effort--a cooperative of business interests and social service advocates--and where does Sten stand on their work, including some of the legal difficulties the whole sit/lie concept has in the first place? Those things, he had answers for--his initial take:
Sit/lie has always been given the wrong treatment...I've never been much of a supporter of this law, so I've never spent a lot of time thinking about how to make it better. The SAFE idea is good stuff, but vagrancy is auxilliary to the plan of ending homelessness, of getting to the causes.
Sten had praise for what Potter was attempting to accomplish, particularly on the level of bringing groups together who have struggled to work productively with each other in the past--homeless advocates vs. the Portland Business Alliance and its allies. He was hopeful that both sides had seen that their respective goals were not as far apart as would have appeared...but said so from the clear perspective of someone who fell clearly on one side of the debate. And despite the appearance of compromise that led to a significant proposed investment in street-person concerns by the business community, it was hard for Sten to get excited about the package. The showers and toilets are great things--needed things--as Sten allowed, but they're a reactive effort rather than a proactive one:
I think this is a poor focus by the business community and downtown interests. The PBA focuses on the symptoms rather than the causes, and I have to treat that approach as intellectually weak. It's really an ideological solution to an ideological problem, when there are more pressing practical problems to deal with elsewhere.
I asked if City Attorney Linda Meng had OKed the new ordinance as was being considered, and he said "he assumed so." What's interesting about Sten's approach to this debate on his pet issue that is going on mostly without him is that it grows on you, logically. He's right--sit/lie is a diversionary problem that has much more to do with people being a bother than it does homelessness. It's as much--if not more--about slacker kids and their dogs as it is the people lined up along the Burnside Bridge for dinner every night. So why argue over the legality of the ordinance? Sten was saying.

Failing to show interest in correcting a law that truly impinges on civil rights (as resting on the sidewalk has been declared to be) would normally be a moral failing, but the enforcement of the law is also something that makes Sten disdain it. It's a tough law to pin on someone; everyone knows who it's meant to target but you can't appear to be targeting them directly--so it makes some cops uncomfortable using it as a crowd control use it in a biased fashion, in other words. That's probably why it's only been used a dozen times or so in its latest incarnation.

And as has been made clear, its legality is spotty to begin with. "I wouldn't say with confidence that the ordinance is legal," Sten said, and I fully agree. In fact, I'd say with layman's confidence that it's not legal. Time and place restrictions do not prevent the ordinance as written from being a blanket liability on sitting in pedestrian thoroughfares, and that's not legal either in the 9th Circuit or the State of Oregon, by both law and jurisprudence. Sten certainly didn't argue the points, although as I said he actually seems fairly unconcerned with the details on an ordinance he thinks has been pointless from the get-go.

As to why the item was cancelled Wednesday, Sten speculated that Potter wanted to work towards the goal of having all parts of the deal be authorized and implemented at the same time. The sit/lie law will take effect quickly by default, unless it's tied to completions of some of the advocacy projects like a day center or public toilets. The task force was adamant that the recommendations be passed and implemented as a group, so Sten thought the hearing might have been delayed to make sure things worked out that way.

I have a little more concern about this than Sten, but in the end he's kind of boxed in: the ordinance has been so rarely used that it would be unfair to make a stink about a status-quo situation that is not overly oppressive in its practice, and pass up the opportunity to get back some needed quality of life options for the community. He agrees the reccomendations need to pass all or nothing, and he wants to see things like the bathrooms get built.

We also talked a bit about the firefighter kicking incident, which both he and I have been fairly quiet on so far. I'm not real comfortable writing about those details, but I'll say in a general sense it seems like everyone is realistic about which parts of the firefighters' reactions were OK and which were not, and what the institutional response needs to be.