Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Sit-Lie Meets COVID-19

By Sarah Owens and Michael Livingston

Center Street, Downtown Salem  Photo courtesy KGWNews

The night sit-lie got its first reading, Mayor Bennett was confident, happy even.  Yes, it had taken too long, and it didn't have any "teeth", and it was going to cost too much, but he had delivered.  Nothing mattered more than being able to say he had delivered.  Finally, Council would be able to stop 30-50 people downtown from, as Councilor Nanke put it, "destroying a large segment of our economy." 

Never mind that Governor Brown had just the day before declared a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Bennett called on Councilor Kaser to speak first.  "This [Ordinance Bill 6-20] is really trying to strike a balance" she said, insisting "it doesn't take away from anything else that the City is doing" to try get people housed, even though providers have warned repeatedly the ban could easily backfire the way the camp sweeps and camping ban had backfired.

Kaser didn't try to justify the ban, which many consider cruel and inhumane.  She preferred to talk about the big tent that the City was going to put up in Marion Square Park. 

"Looking for a day space for people is something we have not really tried", Kaser mused, adding that she "wouldn't be opposed to seeing a staff report on this come back fairly quickly...just to see how it's going to go."  Because she didn't know how it was going to go.  No one knew.  The tent was a sort of social experiment, just like the camping and sit-lie bans.  "It's something that I think we need to try", she said, adding, "I really hope that we won't need this in a year", begging the question, did Salem "need this" at all.

Councilor Nordyke, who normally exhorted the Council to stick with proven strategies, evidence-based practices, and expert advice, said simply that she supported the bill because it provided day space and toilets, unlike "previous iterations."  For Nordyke, the bill was not about banning sitting and lying on the sidewalk -- which she had previously said was unconstitutional --  but "about pushing the City to create additional day center space."

In Nordyke's imagination, the 30-50 people living on the sidewalk outside Rite Aid were just going to pick up their belongings every morning and move a block or two to Marion Square Park and The ARCHES Project, where they would sojourn during the hours the ban was in effect (7a to 9p).  In her mind, banning them from the sidewalk was going to result in their being safer, healthier, "more dignified", and easier for providers to locate.      

Sidewalk outside Rite Aid, March 17, 2020

Neither Kaser nor Nordyke mentioned the price tag -- $30K/mo for the tent, toilets, security, which Councilor Nanke called "significant."  Nanke had questions.  He wondered about the size of the tent, which City Manager Powers explained was needed to accommodate those on the sidewalks outside Rite Aid and Salem Center (30-50) plus areas outside downtown (~20), plus belongings. Nanke also wondered about renting vs. owning the tent, the cost of security, and problems with chemical toilets.

The chemical toilets were "an interim solution", Bennett said, adding that the City was "look[ing] for funding assistance" to purchase a permanent facility like a Portland Loo.  Hoy ventured that the cost estimates were "a worse case scenario", and said "we have been talking with partners..a lot of folks throughout the community who may or may not be willing to step up and help us."  He said he was "fairly irritated" because "this is going to cost us a lot of money that we shouldn't be spending -- that we shouldn't have to spend...because the legislature [was] committed to this before they shut down."  He and Councilor Andersen both claimed the City was being forced to fill a gap due to legislature's failure to allocate funds for a low-barrier shelter/nav center.  

However, the state was never interested in helping the City provide "day space."  The state was interested in Salem opening a low-barrier shelter/nav center.  Had the state funding come through as projected, it would have taken Salem months to get a 24/7 low-barrier shelter/nav center up and running.  (Section 10 (3) of HB 4001 gave cities until November 30, 2020 to get shelter/nav centers up and running, but based on Salem's experience with such projects, that seems wildly unrealistic.)

In addition to suggesting costs might be reduced by contributions from unnamed sources, Bennett talked about "when" the Governor reconvened a special session, he hoped Speaker Kotek's "homeless package" was at the "top of the agenda."  But Governor Brown had said earlier in the week that she was reluctant convene a special session unless legislative leaders come up with a “functioning” plan.  Withycombe, C. "End of legislative session leaves pile of dead bills in its wake."  (9 March 2020, Salem Reporter.)  That was before Brown declared the state of emergency (March 8), banned large gatherings and closed schools (March 12), restaurants and bars (March 16).  Zaitz, L. "Governor orders Salem-Keizer schools, all others in state, closed in a move to contain coronavirus spread."  (12 March 2020, Salem Reporter.)  Withycombe, C. "Coronavirus: Gov. Kate Brown orders restaurants, bars to close, takeout allowed."  (16 March 2020, Statesman Journal.)

Nanke asked whether, if the legislature did come through, the City still was obligated to provide the tent, etc., or could "everything just go to ARCHES?"  Bennett said only that there would be "adjustments along the way", and that "we need to see what kind of public support -- private support..." before he trailed off in another direction, eventually calling on Councilor Andersen.

"This is a national problem...due to...factors that are way beyond our control...and we have to deal with the situation", Andersen deflected.  He called the situation "horrible", without describing it further, and claimed to be "extremely irritated" with the legislature because "mental health and social services are not the City's responsibility."  He attempted to defend reversing his position on the constitutionality of sit-lie by saying in Ordinance Bill 6-20, the ban was "directed toward conduct not toward status."  Echoing Bennett and Hoy, he minimized the cost to the City, calling the $30K per month price a "bargain" compared to what the City was prepared to pay in December for a seasonal low-barrier shelter, and saying "private folks in the City...potentially can step up here and help us with the funding."  He closed platitudinously: "the best compromise is when each side of the issue is a little unhappy."

Center Street, March 17, 2020

The only member of Council to express concern over the people targeted by sit-lie was Councilor Leung, but she was on the phone and seemingly ill.  Her concerns were easily brushed aside as Council moved on to concerns about enforcement.  Like Nanke and Bennett, Councilor Lewis believed that, without the exclusion provision, sit-lie would be "useless."  He said he hoped police would "up the ante" in dealing with those "living on the sidewalks", perhaps referring to the lax enforcement of the camping ban and other low-level offenses downtown.

Ordinance Bill 6-20 passed the first reading 7-1, with Leung opposed and Ausec absent.  See "Sit-Lie Passes, But it Will Cost."  It was due to become effective immediately on second reading, March 23.  Then the Governor called an end to gatherings of more than 50, then 25, then 10, making the tent solution unworkable and effectively killing Ordinance Bill 6-20.

The measures taken to delay the spread of COVID-19, mainly the closures and the social distancing requirements, will be in place for weeks, if not months, long enough for people to change habits, not go out as much, shop even more on line.  If retail survives COVID-19 at all, it's going to have to face the threat of recession.

But, COVID-19's not killed sit-lie.  It's just given the City a different excuse to move people along.  Tonight, March 17, there will be an emergency meeting of the City Council, the Salem Housing Authority and the Urban Renewal Agency.  The agenda's not been published, but it seems very likely that there will be some sort of emergency declaration that will allow police to clear the streets (and keep them clear) for public health reasons relating to the COVID-19 outbreak (the existing declaration relates to unsheltered homelessness).  There will be no giant tent in Marion Square Park, no chemical toilets, no security to have to put in place.  The declaration will be effective immediately, and the mayor can say he has delivered.  For now.

 

Update:  Per the staff report just out, City of Salem Resolution 2020-18 prohibits “public gatherings” in “public spaces” and restricts public spaces to active pedestrian use.  “Public space” is defined to mean the Salem Civic Center, publicly-owned right-of-way, including sidewalks and landscape strips, and City parks.  “Public gathering” is defined to mean any assembly of two or more people remaining in the same area for ten minutes or more.  Violators may be arrested for trespass under SRC 95.550.

City of Salem Resolution 2020-18 also suspends the camping prohibition (SRC 95.720) in all unimproved areas in Wallace Marine and Cascade Gateway parks.  Campsite may not have more than 10 people and must be separated by at least 50 feet from each other and any improved area within the park or abutting properties.

The staff report states that the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency's ARCHES Project "has recommended that groups camping on City sidewalks be required to disburse in order to protect the health of the individuals and help mitigate the spread of COVID-19"  However, that recommendation is not in the letter attached to the staff report from Jimmy Jones, MWVCAA's Director.  The letter states only that, "In this current public health crisis, the community should avoid large concentrations of the homeless population where they cannot hope to practice good hygiene."

See also, Woodworth, W. "City Council calls emergency meeting for coronavirus response."  (17 March 2020, Statesman Journal,)

Emergency City Council Meeting, March 17, 2020

Update: Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2020-18.  Oral public comment was not allowed and no members of the public attended.  Councilors Andersen, Ausec, Lewis and Kaser were on the phone.  As the ever astute Councilor Andersen observed, "It kinda has the practical effect of enacting the sit-lie ordinance."  The Resolution is effective through April 28, 2020.

Andersen's motion to amend Sections 5(b) to allow gatherings of 2-3 failed to pass after a rambling discussion that continued at length if not ad nauseum, before the Mayor finally called for the vote on the main motion.  In answer to a question from Councilor Leung, City Manager Steve Powers clarified that the City does not intend to provide toilets or garbage service at the parks beyond what already exists, but does plan to monitor campsites for compliance the resolution (10 per camp, camps 50' apart).  Powers also said the City intends to move forward with the establishment of permanent restrooms downtown.  

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