Judge rejects Portland's 'sit-lie' law

PORTLAND — Tension over a "sit-lie" ordinance has returned to Portland sidewalks.

A judge recently tossed Portland's sidewalk obstruction ordinance, leaving police without the tool they've used to prevent the city's many homeless people from sitting or lying on downtown sidewalks during the day.

The decision renewed the conflict between downtown retailers who want the city attractive for shopping and those who contend homeless people have an equal right to the streets.

"I'm very happy about it," Shawn Reap, a 27-year-old homeless man, said this week. Reap said he got a ticket just before the judge's ruling and hopes he won't have to pay it.

A recent study by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development found that Oregon has the highest concentration of homeless people of any state in the U.S. The state's unemployment rate has also more than doubled in the past year — to 12.2 percent.

City commissioners approved the so-called "sit-lie" ordinance two years ago as part of a package called Street Access for Everybody that included promises for more benches, restrooms and day shelters.

Multnomah County Circuit Judge Stephen Bushong ruled that the ordinance conflicts with the state's disorderly conduct law, which prohibits blocking a sidewalk with the intent to cause inconvenience.

The city law didn't require intent, so it was much easier to enforce.

Central Precinct Cmdr. Mike Reese said the problem with the state law is proving intent and finding witnesses. He said the police bureau is awaiting legal clarification. Until then, it is not doing any enforcement.

Businesses have noticed. Megan Doern, spokeswoman for the Portland Business Alliance, said retailers have reported more instances of customers feeling harassed and unsafe.

"We have worked for years with homeless activists and the city trying to have unique partnerships, and to have this judge put everything on hold is very frustrating," she said.

Two city commissioners, Nick Fish and Amanda Fritz, neither of whom were in office when the ordinance was passed, are holding public meetings to gather ideas about the issue. Fish noted that advocates have complained that the sidewalk ordinance — a civil violation — criminalized homelessness, and now street people could be charged with disorderly conduct, which carries a potential jail term.

"It's a case of be careful what you ask for," he said.

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