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March 31st, 2010 Beth Slovic, Henry Stern | Q & A
 

Brendan Phillips

What this advocate for homeless people thinks about Mayor Sam Adams’ sidewalk proposal.

     
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BROTHER OF THE ROAD: Brendan Phillips, community organizer for Sisters of the Road.
IMAGE: Ben Mollica

City sidewalks may seem pretty mundane components of urban infrastructure—just a bunch of concrete slabs.

But they’re more than just places to walk, shop and rest. They’re public forums for free expression and, lately, ground zero for wide-ranging talks that deal with everything from our rights as citizens to how we treat our most vulnerable residents, Portland’s homeless.

Last week, Mayor Sam Adams proposed a new ordinance for managing busy sidewalks downtown and in the Rose Quarter and Lloyd District. The mayor’s ordinance, which City Council could consider as soon as April 8, comes in response to last year’s court ruling that found Portland’s “sit-lie” law unconstitutional.

WW sat down with Brendan Phillips, a community organizer for Sisters of the Road and son of folk singer Utah Phillips, to talk about the new ordinance.

Willamette Week: What about the mayor’s new sidewalk plan is positive?

Brendan Phillips: It says clearly that panhandling is constitutionally protected free speech.

The city also says “aggressive panhandling” is not OK. How do you define “aggressive”?

Physically assaulting people, tripping, being verbally abusive, berating, chasing down—that sort of stuff is not behavior we are condoning. I think that the vast majority of panhandlers out there don’t do those activities.

But isn’t the term “aggressive” subjective? If somebody says to me, “Hey, you asshole, give me money,” I might see that as aggressive.

Physically impeding someone from walking down the street, sticking your foot out to trip them, spitting on them, disrespecting them on that level—that, to me, is an aggressive panhandling tactic. Whereas if someone yells at you as you’re walking away, saying, “You MF, you didn’t do this,” or whatnot, that is not aggressive panhandling.

What about the part of the mayor’s proposal that says dogs need to be no more than two lateral feet from their owners? Odd, no?

As long as it applies equally to all, then it’s fine.

What else needs to happen to make the mayor’s sidewalk plan work?

We need to have something that allows people to camp, to pitch a tent, to meet the basic need of getting a good night’s sleep away from the elements, because all of the issues of homelessness are compounded when you can’t get sleep.

Commissioner Nick Fish wants new guidelines around Portland’s anti-camping ordinance. What problems have you identified in his work so far?

If you were ticketed as someone who was camping out and you felt that you had followed all the guidelines and could prove that, you wouldn’t be able to use the guidelines to defend yourself in court.

Are there other potential problems, say, with guidelines that limit the number of tents in one area?

What happens if someone comes after I’ve camped and fallen asleep and camps right next to me and an officer rolls up right next to me? Do I get kicked out? Does that person get kicked out? Who gets what? How do they do that?

Maybe there’s a different solution. Does Sisters have a position on fixed campsites like Dignity Village?

If more Dignity Villages are going to happen, the leadership needs to come from the community. I don’t think that you can take Dignity Village as a model and prescribe some kind of ordinance-level or citywide way of explaining how that’s going to work and then plop them down all over the city.

Is there a city that offers a template of what you’d like to see happening?

Eugene. It’s not the best template, because it’s a much more rural community. [But Portland is talking] about doing what Eugene does around car camping, which is to make it legal to camp in your car. Also [Eugene’s] program allows churches to allow their parking lots to be used for those cars to park in, and it funds outreach workers who go to those camps and make sure the people aren’t being exploited where they’re camping, the camps are sanitary and the people understand the rules of the road when it comes to camping.

What’s your take on Fish, who’s up for re-election in May?

I think he’s done a number of really amazing things, and I think he is truly a compassionate person.… [But] I feel that sometimes his positioning and his political maneuvering is all to better his pursuit of getting re-elected.


FACT: The proposed new ordinance calls for an 8-foot-wide “pedestrian-use zone” on all sidewalks at least 10 feet wide. Within that zone, “a person must be on foot to be able to move immediately.”
 
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