Salem is poised to outlaw sitting and lying on city sidewalks from dawn to dusk.
But the city is taking its chances with such a proposal after a Multnomah County court ruled a similar Portland ordinance was unconstitutional several years ago.
No public hearing is scheduled on the plan, but city councilors could vote Monday to hold one.
City Hall has been ramping up efforts to deal with homelessness this year. In July, the city kicked off a multi-million-dollar homeless rental assistance program with the aim of getting the city's "most vulnerable" homeless into safe housing.
But the proposed ordinance before city councilors is more punitive. It would give police the option of citing and removing people from street sides, where some scrape together money as panhandlers.
In an interview at City Hall, officials characterized the proposal as striking a balance between people's rights and concerns that have been raised about proper use of the sidewalks.
Police officers do all they can to find people with "chronic problems and issues" resources and put them in contact with places where they can get help, said Deputy Chief Skip Miller, with the Salem Police Department.
Officers can't help when they refuse services, but police also can't solve others' business and safety concerns, he said.
If the proposal goes through, officers will aim to connect people with resources, but if those are refused and people don't leave, officers could enforce the ordinance, Miller said.
"Homelessness is not a crime," Miller stressed. "We're in no way trying to make homelessness a crime. We want to get help and resources to those people."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon opposes such ordinances.
“Laws like this are a violation of people’s rights," Kimberly McCullough, the group's policy director, said Wednesday. They don't curtail homelessness and misdirect resources, she said.
When people don’t have a place to sleep and rest, there are all kinds of negative side effects, such as emotional distress, depression and exacerbating mental illness, McCullough said. Instead, resources should go toward root problems that include a lack of affordable housing, decent paying jobs and effective services.
Barring certain exceptions, such as medical emergencies, Ordinance Bill 22-17 would make it illegal to lie down or sit on public sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.
The proposal bars people from camping on sidewalks. It also would become unlawful to sit on chairs and stools along sidewalks, except, for instance, during events and by businesses, such as restaurants with outdoor seating.
Portland tried a similar tack to get people off sidewalks before a Multnomah County judge ruled in 2009 it clashed with state law and the Oregon Constitution.
In his ruling, Judge Stephen Bushong said Oregon law preempted the ordinance, because the person obstructing the sidewalk was not doing so in an overt attempt to "cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm."
Salem City Manager Steve Powers said the city attorney's office "carefully prepared" the draft ordinance.
"Might it be challenged? Sure," he said. "I do know that I wouldn't be bringing this forward if I knew it was legally flawed."
City Attorney Dan Atchison declined to talk about the Portland ordinance.
Powers has been city manager for almost two years, in which time he's received numerous comments regarding sidewalk use.
On one side is the argument that sidewalks are for walking and maybe outdoor dining, but that's it. On the other: "How dare you criminalize homelessness? It's public space, leave them alone, get them help," Powers said.
'Where are we supposed to go?'
Robbie Peddycoart is surrounded by sharpies and paper to draw with, cardboard signs and a brimmed hat with a $1 bill inside. He's sitting on a sidewalk Tuesday outside a downtown Starbucks in Salem.
"Most people who are homeless, we just look for a place out of the rain. ... What the hell are we supposed to do? Where are we supposed to go?" said Peddycoart, a wiry man with pink hair and glasses.
He has lived in Portland, where police used to have the power to cite you for sitting on sidewalks.
"All you're doing is clogging the courts," he said. "You're creating ... a burden on the people that they can't pay. And it's not a solution."
Possible solutions, he figures, are funneling money into social services, opening a non-religious homeless shelter and training police officers how to deal with schizophrenics.
The next morning, it's dumping buckets outside Starbucks. Peddycoart moves camp, seeking shelter across the street on a patch of sidewalk beneath an overhang.
He lays out his sleeping bag and places a pillow down, eventually pulling a long plastic sack over the sleeping bag.
Businesses conflicted over proposal
Business owners find themselves at odds with the need to make their customers comfortable and compassion for the down-and-out.
"There's a strong part of me that feels real sympathetic to their situation, and they need someplace to stay," said Troy Munsell, owner of Santiam Bicycle in downtown Salem.
"But in the same breath, as a business owner, I have had customers ask to be able to leave by separate doors, or such, because they felt intimidated by a bunch of people hanging out outside," Munsell said.
Santiam Bicycle is right across the street from Union Gospel Mission, a men's homeless shelter with a day room where people can hang out. After hours, the men sleep there.
There was a time when Munsell would regularly have to pick up trash left on the sidewalk. And sometimes homeless people beat on the store's windows.
"It's a fight with my own sense of empathy," he said.
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Down the street is Olivia's, a women's boutique selling clothes that recently moved in to a high-traffic corner of Court and Commercial streets NE. Owner Sandy Powell is caught between compassion and business.
The men who congregate around two benches outside her store are largely polite and courteous, though some have shouted profanities or pounded on the windows, she said.
Customers have taken notice and voiced concerns.
But one man who used to camp overnight in front of her store, she recalls, would clean up cigarette butts around the benches the next morning, "just to make sure it was clean for me."
Reach Jonathan Bach by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 503-399-6714. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMBach and Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/jonathanbachjournalist/
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