n Sept. 6, the Bend City Council unanimously approved a motion, that at first glance, might seem rather innocuous. The council moved to amend Bend Code 6.15, clearing up the language around the obstruction of public ways. The issue centers largely around the Breezeway, that tunnel-like thoroughfare connecting Mirror Pond Plaza with Wall Street at Minnesota in downtown Bend.
It's where people can sometimes be found lingering or sitting, ostensibly because the Breezeway offers more protection from sun, rain and other elements. The change to Bend Code 6.15 establishes and/or clarifies a standard, in line with the tenets of the Americans with Disabilities Act, requiring that "a 6 foot accessible passageway must be maintained on all public ways."
Basically, it means that if someone is sitting on the sidewalk or in the Breezeway and there's less than 6 feet of space for people to move through, law enforcement can ask the person to move (or otherwise comply with the 6-foot rule). The next step: issuing a citation, much like a parking ticket. Thus far, it's not clear how long a person might have between that initial request and the citation.
Does this seem like an attempt by the city council to kick someone while he's down? It did to us—especially when you consider Mayor Casey Roats' statement at the council meeting, in which he said: "It's the belligerent folks causing issues, not the nice old man who has fallen in hard times, minding his own business." Because if someone has fallen on hard times, they're also required to be "nice," apparently.
The revised ordinance has some ugly implications. It's essentially a half-step from "sit-lie" ordinances, adopted and eventually ended in cities including Portland and Honolulu, after vehement opposition by human rights proponents who claimed the ordinances were an attack on homeless people and vagrants, and an attempt to criminalize homelessness.P
roponents of "sit-lie" ordinances in those cities—much like the tack taken here in Bend—say they're necessary to keep the sidewalks clear. Like Bend, people behind these ordinances elsewhere have relied on ADA standards to make their cases.
We tend to agree with the anti-sit-lie camp. Homelessness is not a crime. Sitting on the sidewalk is not a crime—and while people with limited mobility deserve the access and freedom of movement that others enjoy, this issue is not tied to concerns for the disability community. It is about a community facing the reality of becoming a larger town with a larger share of homelessness and vagrancy. You can't kick this issue down the road.
The answer to the problem of "belligerent" people impacting the experience of other Bendites (and visitors) does not lie in issuing tickets to people who arguably will not or cannot pay them. It lies in offering additional support to people who are struggling. When we asked City Councilor Nathan Boddie—who also voted in favor of the recent amendment to the ordinance—he agreed that the ultimate solution is not a "kick it down the road" mentality. Instead, it's about investing in support.
"If we think about what we're spending right now on law enforcement and medical care and sticking people in the ERs, it's far less than what we (could spend, offering housing and medical support for the homeless)," Boddie said.
"One of the things that we're recognizing in health care increasingly is the treatment for diabetes is insulin, but you know, the treatment for diabetes is also stable housing, food security and things like that. This is actually how we prevent the person from being on the street or prevent the disease from getting out of control," Boddie said.
There is not an easy solution that's going to make strolls downtown safer or a simple solution about how to manage the relationship between downtown and its transient population. However, it is worth paying attention to seemingly innocuous moves that can have wider implications in aggravating a growing problem. Homelessness is a symptom of the bigger issue of economic inequality, and we will need to work more vigorously as a community on the issue or, we'll be kicking this can long and far.