Et Tu, Tom? Another Knife in the Back for Homeless People in Portland
Ever since taking office, Mayor Tom Potter has been walking a delicate and
difficult line between the interests of the people of this city and the
interests of those who pull the purse strings. Yesterday, alas, he stepped over onto the wrong side of that line. That's when he unveiled a plan that promises to further persecute the poor and homeless people of Portland, at the behest of the forces of gentrification.
Promising to make downtown "safer," Mayor Potter expressed a desire to rid downtown of anyone who might scare shoppers away with their naked and unabashed poverty. Assuring homeless people that, hey, this is nothing personal or anything, he launched an attack on something called "aggressive panhandling," as well as an assualt on "a small but highly visible group who don't [sic] respect Portland's laws or its core value of respect for others." By respect for others, he appears to mean respect for those with a hearty income, rather than those who are presumably beneath our respect. Because, if anything, this proposal only reifies the already ingrained disrespect Portland's business interests show toward those who cannot afford their wares. The mayor went on to outline a 5-step program for the elimination of homeless people from our streets. Oh, that isn't what he called it or anything, but that is what it amounts to.
There will be a curfew in the South park blocks, and the obligatory Public Safety Action Committee. The Committee will consist of six full-time Portland police officers, drawn from a pool of officers already known for the intolerance and violence they have shown toward homeless people. The curfew, of course, will not apply to those who seem to have a "legitimate" reason to be in the park. It will apply only to those who dare to sleep there, or who fit the profile of "troublemaker," or, if history is any guide, those who just plain scare the good citizens of Portland by the way they look. Said the mayor, "City residents will still be allowed to walk through one of our most beautiful parks, but no one will be allowed to loiter, harass visitors or use the park as their personal camp. Those who violate the curfew will be arrested." But, as always in portland, it is the officers on the street who get to determine who is there "legitimately" and who is not. It will be the people who wear tattered clothes and have no where to go who will be charged with "loitering," the people who frighten away customers because of the holes in their pockets who will be charged with "harassing visitors."
I think the phrase that bothers me the most in this statement is the part about those who "use the park as their personal camp." This seems unnecessarily venomous, and underlies a lack of any real understanding of the issues involved here. Homeless people do not even pretend to have a "personal camp," either in the South Park blocks, or anywhere. In point of fact, they do not have a personal anything. They, more than most of us know, are very much aware that the parks, like the rest of this city's supposedly public spaces, are not theirs. They have no place to sleep without harassment, no place to get away from the increasingly hostile public gaze. They cannot even sleep in the bushes next to the roaring freeway without risking fines, arrests, or worse. So it seems disheartening that the Mayor, from whom I expected better, would imply that homeless people deserve retribution for being uppity enough to try claiming a piece of the public commons as their own.
In addition to the curfew and yet another full-time police squad targeting this population, the Mayor will be allocating $500,000 for addiction treatment, plus $1.3 million for more jail space to house those who are swept into this net. Said the Mayor, "Now, when one of these people is arrested, they will be given a choice - immediate admission into a treatment program that will get them off the streets and into programs that can help, or jail." When I called the Mayor's office to find out why they are willing to spend so very much more on jail beds, I was informed that it is "because jail space is more expensive than treatment." Perhaps this is why, but I doubt it. Maybe it's because incarceration is really the goal here, not treatment. Either way, though, it sounds like jail to me. How many other populations can you think of that are arbitrarily picked up off the streets and given a choice like that?
This project is being sold to us as a necessary "law and order" response to a growing threat lurking in the heart of downtown. However, in almost the same breath yesterday, the Mayor declared that crime is actually declining steadily in downtown Portland -- down 7%. I have to ask, then, why is this expensive and ethically questionable program even necessary? So far, no response on this question has been forthcoming from city hall. I think, though, that I know the answer.
Unlike Portland's homeless population, who understand all too well that the commons is not theirs, the Portland business community seems to belive the opposite. Every public space is just a dividend in the eyes of the Portland Business Alliance, a fruit ripe for the picking. Corporate colonialists have a grand scheme to turn the park blocks into a thriving metropolitan shopping mall (which we need every bit as much as we need all those new jail beds that will make their dream possible). Homeless people are in the way of that scheme, because they do not fit the desired image. They remind people that the price of gluttony, of unbridled over-consumption, is a price often exacted from others. They make people feel guilty about having too much in a world where others have little. Poverty, in short, is bad for business. So, like every indigenous population who stands in the way of the colonialist oppressor, they will be herded into the wastelands at the outer edges of our society. In this case, rather than reservations or zoos, they will go to jail to make way for "progress."
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