Democracy in action.
At last night's City Council meeting there was spirited debate about a proposed ordinance aimed at reducing perceived problems caused by homeless people, the most controversial part being a ban on sitting or lying on a sidewalk during daytime hours.
I watched much of the meeting via a CCTV feed. Citizens testifying against the ordinance far outnumbered those in favor of it, who mostly were from the downtown business community and Chamber of Commerce.
Both sides had reasonable points to make. Homeless people do cause problems, both in downtown Salem and elsewhere. But the sit-lie portion of the proposed ordinance (which had the strong support of the police department) was open to criticism for both constitutional and compassion reasons.
When the City Council started debate on this issue following the public testimony, Councilor Chris Hoy proposed several amendments to the ordinance.
The voting and discussion was rather hard to follow, even for members of the City Council, who had to ask questions about what was being voted on, and what its effect would be. The first amendment, to remove the sit-lie part of the ordinance, was approved on a 5-4 vote.
Interestingly, Councilor Hoy voted against the amendment, as did Mayor Chuck Bennett and Councilors Jim Lewis and Brad Nanke. Councilors Andersen, Leung, Nordyke, Kaser, and Ausec provided the five votes that eliminated the sit-lie provision.
In the end, a stripped-down version of the ordinance was approved on a 8-1 vote that includes a ban on homeless shelters on public property (tents, cardboard structures, etc.) and a ban on leaving belongings unattended for a period of time (24 hours, I believe).
This seems like a reasonable compromise, though I'm sure it won't please many people, including some downtown business owners. Councilor Andersen shared a good summary of last night's proceedings in a Facebook post. See below.
I agree with Andersen that shelters and unattended property are especially bothersome. When I see a homeless person sitting/lying on a bench or a sidewalk, I see a human being who deserves care and compassion.
But a fully enclosed sidewalk shelter, such as one that sits near the corner of Court and Commercial streets, strikes me as an ugly incursion onto public property that shouldn't be allowed. And won't be, if the City Council passes the ordinance after a second reading in December.
Seemingly there should be places on private property where homeless people can be allowed to put up shelters, as is being done on the Arches property just north of downtown. Hopefully affordable housing eventually can be found for homeless people, which naturally is far superior to living in a tent or other temporary shelter.
Here's Councilor Andersen's Facebook report. I've added some paragraph breaks to make it easier to read.
SIT/LIE BAN -NO, CAMPING BAN -YES
Last night the City council, in a long meeting, wrestled with the proposed sit/lie/camping/exclusion/abandoned property ordinance. Very powerful testimony from everyone, on all sides, who spoke.
There was an amendment put forth which removed the downtown ban from the ordinance, which I supported, consistent with my views (see below). The amendment passed on a 5-4 vote. Those voting to remove the ban were Councilors Kaser, Nordyke, Leung, Ausec and I. The other four councilors (Mayor, Hoy, Lewis, and Nanke) voted to retain the ban.
We then voted on another amendment, to ban camping city wide (previously there had not been a ban on camping in the city limits). That ban passed unanimously.
Then, we did not expand the downtown area exclusionary ban. (There already is a procedure to ban from downtown folks who, while in the downtown area, break other laws already on the books.) Finally, we voted on the remaining parts of the ordinance – a city wide camping ban and a provision about what to do with abandoned property downtown [if abandoned for 24 hours, property would be stored for a period of time – 30 days (I think) with notice provision, then destroyed].
All along I have said we need to balance the need for a vibrant downtown and the needs and concerns of those who live, work, shop and own businesses there with the needs of and concern for those whose unfortunate life circumstances have brought them to the downtown are. This is a difficult balance and I believe we achieved the best possible result last night.
I have always felt that one of the main problems is a visual one, tents, shopping carts and the like in the downtown area. This is understandable from both sides – if all your worldly possessions could be fit into one or two shopping carts, you would never want them out of your sight; with the result being visual “pollution” downtown, with attendant issues.
However, the sit/lie ordinance may not pass legal muster and would most likely not be effective. Instead it would just suck up limited city resources which could be better used (downtown toilets, storage areas and the like). Now we can move forward together to continue to improve the life of downtown and the lives of all who live in Salem.