PORTLAND, OR — The homeless of Portland, OR have many concerns, but thanks to Mayor Charlie Hales, now they can rest easier.
That’s because of a new law he has championed, making it illegal for a person to not have a home.
For months, the Portland Business Alliance has been putting pressure on the Hales administration to do something about the homeless population in the downtown business district. The city, meanwhile, has been engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with activists and members of the homeless community, who have been living on the public sidewalks outside of City Hall, as well as in Terry Schrunk Plaza, in defiance of city policies that they say criminalize homelessness. One day, Hales might have the police push the vigil across the street, into the park. Then the next day, he might have the police push the vigil out of the park, and back onto the sidewalk again. Members of the vigil often find themselves hassled and arrested for rules that would change on a daily basis.
On August 15th, 2013, Hales had started off the day with a screwball [An alcoholic beverage consisting of orange juice and vodka. --Ed.], and found himself so moved that he relented — announcing to the press that he would allow the vigil to remain outside of City Hall, with no further harassment. The very next day, one of his staffers had explained that every word Charlie Hales had said was actually a typo, and that the vigil would remain subject to police harassment. It became clear that the situation was coming to a head, and something had to budge.
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“We wanted to get them off of our front door step, so we thought, ‘Well, what if they had homes?’ And we agreed this was a good idea, an idea we hadn’t considered before. So then we thought that the best way to make this happen was to go the penalization route. Nobody is going to be homeless now — not if it means risking a fine, or even jailtime,” explained Hales, during a press conference. He then unveiled exciting plans for a food cart plaza outside of City Hall, taking the place of the now-unnecessary vigil.
“We’re especially happy about it,” Hales said, “because not only have we solved the issue of homelessness, but we’ve also created a new market for the local Portland economy. Consumers can come to City Hall, buy food, and eat it. The system, as you can clearly see, does sometimes work.”
In addition to the 15 minutes of permitted sitting-time that a food cart purchase over $5 entitles a consumer to, consumers can also purchase additional 15 minute-increments of permitted sitting time. If the food cart plaza is successful, City Hall is considering adding a gift shop and a Chili’s restaurant to the first floor, further expanding the value of this public space.
“This is a brilliant strategy to end homelessness, and it couldn’t have come at a better time,” commented Housing Commissioner Dan Saltzman. “The city’s financial resources are stretched to the max. But thanks to Hales’ initiative, we’ll be able to save some money by closing down all of the unneeded shelters. If we take a similar approach with food banks and other social services, we can start saving the city some serious money.”
Given the gravity of the situation, the city wasted no time implementing the progressive new policies. The Department of Parks and Recreation erected a fence around Terry Schrunk Plaza, in a gesture meant to welcome the homeless out of the park and into the greater community.
An envoy of peace officers carried the good news to downtown housing shelter Right to Dream Too, kindly enabling all residents to immediately vacate, so that they could waste no time in beginning their new lives. As an added personal courtesy, the officers wore full riot gear as they escorted the residents off of the premises, to protect them from any armed organized gangs that might mean them harm.
“The homeless are entitled to certain protections, as a legally-defined minority, under Title VI,” said Joe Freedom, a minister and documentarian who has been living at the City Hall vigil for the past year. “It’s good to finally see City Hall stepping up to its responsibility, instead of just sweeping the issues under the rug. Without sleep, a person isn’t able to function. And we live in a society where there are six empty homes for every one homeless person — how does that make any sense? Well, the mayor says that it doesn’t make any sense, and he’s right. We each need to go and buy at least one of those homes. When you think about it, it’s kind of disgusting that we’ve been letting them just sit empty and unsold like that. It’s not fair, people could lose their jobs because we aren’t buying homes.”
But it’s not all a walk in the park, and success isn’t a guarantee. Asked what would happen to people who did not, or were unable to, buy a home, Hales’ tone darkens. “I was not elected mayor to tolerate lawlessness,” he says with a deep conviction.
Still, Saltzman clarifies, the city is not without compassion, even for law-breakers. “We’ll continue to operate one large shelter, which is currently under construction by HDR Engineering. It’s 10 miles outside of the city. If we find anybody in the downtown business district, or in any of the, lighter, uh, white — um, we have a color assigned to each neighborhood on the big map in the wardroom at City Hall, so that’s what I’m talking about — well, those people, we’ll send a free van for them to take them to the shelter. There will be work for them there, so they can pay for their own room & board, until they come into compliance and buy a house.”
“There are the sensitive issues of addiction and mental illness that come with the territory,” Hales interjected, “So we are going to have to be proactive about caring. We’ll have peace officers posted at the door to the shelter at all times, and we won’t just let people leave willy-nilly — I mean, they’d be wandering off, ten miles away from anything, maybe with nothing to call their own, and for all we know, they might just come back to the city. So we’ll let them leave by means of a free shuttle, totally free, which will take them to any one of a number of select few pre-approved locations that they desire. And anyone staying at the shelter can take the free shuttle whenever they want, just by putting a request into writing with 24 hours notice.”
But local government can’t save everyone by itself, even if it sounds that way. They need the help of the consumers of Portland. So, the Department of Housing will be setting up a hotline, so that downtown consumers and businesses can report a sighting of a homeless person.
“Nobody will be left behind and nobody will slip through the cracks,” Saltzman said, with a distinguished tear in his eye.
In celebration of this victory, City Council will enjoy a much-deserved vacation. Consequently, the public meetings and public testimony that usually take place on Wednesdays will be canceled for the next two weeks.
“It’s a very rewarding experience, as mayor, to bask in the appreciation of your entire city. And I’m really going to miss that I won’t get to have that experience on Wednesday,” Hales said. “But the Portland Business Alliance just bought me a cruise to Hawaii, and I can’t say no to that.”