Which one is it?

We love our early morning coffee runs – bringing hot drinks and snacks to our friends waking up outdoors.  Today (Feb. 15) we met some great people, and heard some great stories.  We also witnessed something disturbing, and honestly, I don’t know how to process it.

The City of Portland says there are 1700 people living outdoors in our fair town.  Think about that – where do 1700 people sleep?  The answers are varied: under bridges, in doorways, hidden in parks or vacant lots, and so on.  Some are legal, most are not.  Legal means you have a property owner’s permission.

For public spaces legal is controlled by a host of rules.  The parks do not allow overnight stays and most are technically closed from midnight to 5am.  The spaces under bridges are controlled by ODOT or the county or whoever owns the  bridge, unless there is a road or sidewalk involved.  Sidewalks have their own rules, allowing usage beyond 36″ of a building or other edge.  This means generous sidewalks allow enough space to sleep.

Case in point – Naito Parkway under the Morrison Bridge.  The sidewalk is eight feet or so wide, so in theory five of that is available.  We’ve been there plenty of times as there is usually a group waking up each morning.  We’ve been there when the cops have done a wake-up call asking folks to pack up and move along at about 7am.  In every case the cops have said it was fine to sleep there, but you can’t move in.  You need to clear out each day.

Today the story was different.  Today the cops came and told everyone they were trespassing and would be cited if they didn’t get out NOW, as in ten minutes and counting.  Anything left there after ten minutes (including everything unclaimed – sorry if you were using the bathroom down the street) was thrown in a trash truck.

Two problems.  The smaller is the whole trash thing.  There’s an Oregon law now that belongings have to be stored for 30 days and signage left clearly stating how the belongings can be claimed.  That didn’t happen this morning.  (The law, if your curious, is ORS 203.079 and can be found here: http://www.oregonlaws.org/ors/203.079.)  In fact, the same law says they have to give 24 hour notice before evicting.

The bigger problem, especially for our friends, was the sudden switch.  One day it is legal to sleep there.  The next day, and the next, still legal.  Then all-of-a-sudden it is not legal and our friends wake up to trouble.  Which is it?  My friends have very little they can count on; can they at least count on a consistent enforcement of the law?  Please?

I’m not accusing the cops here.  I’m not naming officers or taking anything to court.  I’m asking, though, that they decide what the rules say and then stick with it.  Or, if they do change their minds, to follow state law and post the no camping notice 24 hours in advance.  Is that too much to ask?

Which is it?  Once we know we can act accordingly.  As of right now we simply don’t know.