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Bill revives debate over Portland’s ‘sit-lie’ law

— PORTLAND (AP) — The Portland Business Alliance, which aims to make downtown a hassle-free place to shop, is pushing the Oregon Legislature to give cities more freedom to pass tough sidewalk ordinances.

The state House overwhelmingly passed such a bill last month and a state Senate committee heard testimony on it Wednesday. The city of Portland tried to make sidewalks easier to navigate by approving a “sit-lie” ordinance that banned people from sitting or lying on the sidewalk between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. But a judge nixed it in 2009, saying it conflicted with state law and was unconstitutional.

“Portland, Seattle, San Francisco attract a group of individuals who refuse services, panhandle aggressively, sometimes have dogs with them, and create an environment that is intimidating for customers and is frustrating for business owners,” said Megan Doern, business alliance spokeswoman.

“We hear about it every day.”

At Wednesday’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, opponents said sit-lie ordinances, such as those approved in other cities, criminalize homeless people and do little to stop aggressive panhandling. Those who testified against the bill said such ordinances are selectively enforced to target the most vulnerable residents, some of whom lack a place to stay for reasons they can’t control.

“You can’t make it illegal for people to have a mental health crisis,” said Monica Goracke, an attorney with the Oregon Law Center.

The committee hasn’t scheduled a vote. If it eventually becomes law, the alliance said it would press the City Council to revisit the sit-lie issue.

Israel Bayer, director of Street Roots, a local newspaper that advocates for homeless people, said in a phone interview that tougher laws against sitting on sidewalks would divide the community while failing to address the greater issues of poverty and homelessness. He said homeless youth along the West Coast have been demonized by pro-business groups for affecting downtown livability.

“We’re strong advocates for a healthy business climate and city, but poor people shouldn’t be specifically targeted because of their status,” Bayer said.

If the bill is approved, it’s unclear if the City Council would be ready to revisit the sit-lie controversy. Spokesman Dana Haynes said Mayor Charlie Hales supports the “notion of clarity” on whether the state or city has jurisdiction on such matters but has not taken a position on the specific bill before the legislature or whether to back the type of ordinance rejected four years ago.

Among the business owners who support tougher sidewalk restrictions is Stacey Gibson, who owns a Subway franchise. About a half-dozen people, with a dog or two, camp outside her restaurant each day, she said. They pester customers for money and food with cardboard signs displaying messages that are alternately funny or offensive.

By the end of the day, she said, they come into the store to steal chips and ask for spoons and water cups. They frequently want to use the bathroom, where they wash up and mark the mirrors with graffiti. They get angry when workers deny their requests. One panhandler spit on an employee, Gibson said.

“We’re not trying to discriminate against anybody that’s homeless,” she said. “I think there’s truly a difference between someone that’s needy or mentally unstable versus what you have going on with these kids.”

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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