Last night the Salem City Council voted 7-1 to move ahead with considering Cara Kaser's creative attempt to find a middle ground on how to deal with downtown's homeless problem. (Jim Lewis was the only no vote; Tom Andersen was out of town).
A Salem Reporter story, "Salem City Council moves ahead with sit-lie -- with some conditions," explains the essence of Kaser's approach.
The Salem City Council is moving forward with a plan to ban sitting and lying on public sidewalks — with provisions.
Councilor Cara Kaser made a motion to go ahead with the ban on Monday, Feb. 24, with a stipulation that it wouldn’t go into effect until an indoor or outdoor day facility provides shelter from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., the hours that would be regulated under the proposed ordinance.
It would also keep the ordinance from kicking people out of the downtown exclusion zone for violating the ban and requires the city to come up with a plan to provide permanent restrooms.
This seems to be a reasonable compromise between the extremes of two groups of people who provided verbal public testimony at the February 24 council meeting.
I watched some of the testimony via CCTV's streaming of the meeting.
Quite a few downtown businesspeople were adamant that allowing the homeless to essentially live on sidewalks in the area is causing their businesses a lot of harm. Some of their employees are afraid to use the parking garages because of bad behavior by homeless individuals. And they're worried that customers are avoiding downtown.
On the other hand, many other people spoke about the need to not criminalize the homeless. They correctly pointed out that many of those living on the streets have no choice, either because of an inability to afford a place to live, or for other reasons -- such as mental health problems.
I believe Councilor Kaser said that her proposal isn't going to be liked by most of those who testified. Likely that's true, which indicates that it is an appealing middle ground. However, it still has problems.
A Statesman Journal story, "Modified sit-lie proposal gains favor with Salem councilors, with restrictions," describes what could be the central drawback of the proposal: a lack of places for the homeless to go during the daytime when the sit-lie ordinance would prevent lying and sitting on sidewalks (with some exceptions).
Jimmy Jones, the executive director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, said while considerable resources are in the works, like more housing and a navigation center, the conditions suggested for the sit-lie are unlikely to be met and unlikely to be successful if achieved.
"Even our expanded day center will not come close to meeting the need for the total unsheltered homeless population in Salem," Jones said. "There will need to be additional spaces designated. ARCHES will not be enough alone, and requiring that most of the downtown homeless be there will quickly overwhelm our capacity if there’s no place elsewhere to go."
Jones said about 1,000 people live outside in the Salem/Keizer area. Of those, 300 live in the immediate downtown area.
He said the conditions will also be pricey. Expanding the ARCHES day center to include weekends and evenings will cost almost $1 million over their current operating budget. Even a minimal expansion, like extending to hours from 3 p.m. until 6 p.m. during the week, would cost $400,000 a year.
About 125 people visit ARCHES a day. The expansion would allow them to fit more people —"maybe 95 or so" — inside at one time. Expanded operating hours would lead to more traffic, Jones said.
"We can handle the bulk of the folks, but having an overflow somewhere is going to be necessary," he said.
Jones warned of creating even more "unintended consequences" like the ones seen after evictions of people living under bridges and in local parks, and a ban on camping on city property.
When the ban was enacted, it pushed people away from established clusters of tents and tarps, like the one outside the ARCHES Project, and into new locations, like the stretch of sheltered space running along Rite Aid, T.J. Maxx and the former Nordstrom building.
So there's numerous moving parts that need to fit together smoothly in order for a modified sit-lie ordinance to succeed. Here's some of the things that come to mind in addition to the possible lack of day centers for the homeless, as noted above by Jimmy Jones.
-- Providing a place for homeless people to store their belongings during the day.
-- Enforcing the sit-lie ordinance from 7 am to 9 pm, given that Kaser's proposal takes away the ability of police to exclude people from the downtown area if they have repeated infractions of the ordinance.
-- Dealing with the reluctance of some homeless people to spend their day in an organized day center. This could be due to a mental health problem, or a simple preference for being on their own.
-- Ensuring that downtown businesses have the patience to continue dealing with problems caused by homeless people during what could be a lengthy period of city officials and homeless advocates figuring out how to make the revised sit-lie ordinance work.