Change is Hard

Hales pledges to fight panhandling downtown. It's not clear how he wins.

No matter where he travels, the street kid known as Kidd always knows where he wants to end up.

With a ragged goatee and barely as tall as a sidewalk mailbox, Kidd, who is in his early 20s, says he moves from city to city. But he has spent most of the past three years living on he street in Portland, asking passersby for a dollar in front of downtown businesses.

In case he gets lost, he has a return address of sorts written on his gray T-shirt in green marker.

"My name is Kidd," it reads. "I'm too wasted to know where I live. Please return me to SW 3rd, Portland, 97204."

Kidd and the street youth like him are the reason downtown businesses say belligerent panhandling by street youth scares away customers.

But Kidd says he takes as much abuse as he dishes out.

"When somebody gets aggressive and we get up and beat 'em," he says, "then we look like the bad guys. Then you go to jail because you got in a fair fight."

Kidd's next fight may be rigged, too. It's with Mayor Charlie Hales.

Hales has listed fighting homelessness and taking on panhandlers such as Kidd among his top priorities as mayor, once he gets the city's budget done.

It's a risky gambit: Every Portland mayor since Bud Clark has tried to deal with homelessness, panhandling or both. But each has failed to set benchmarks to measure success against an intractable social ill.

Without such benchmarks, Hales runs the risk of appearing to appease downtown businesses—especially the Portland Business Alliance—without a clear goal in mind.

The PBA has gone as far as to lobby Salem for a new law that will help Hales crack down on panhandlers by reviving the city's controversial sit-lie ordinance struck down by the courts four years ago. 

PBA spokeswoman Megan Doern says her organization is targeting one specific group: the young "road warriors" who travel in street families through Portland each summer, shooting heroin and getting in fights. 

"There's concern that Portland becomes an even bigger magnet for this population," Doern says. "They're not interested in services. They're not interested in treatment. They're not interested in housing. They're interested in panhandling."

Michael Moore, a health advocate at Old Town homeless services nonprofit Sisters of the Road Cafe, says the PBA is scapegoating panhandlers as an excuse for the downtown economy not turning around.

"Portland has this long history of trying to exclude people it sees as undesirable or bad for business," Moore says. "This attempt sounds very much like a continuation of that."

At his first state of the city address last month, Hales said one of his top priorities this year would be "dealing effectively and humanely with the epidemic of panhandling and homelessness.” 

Hales declined to be interviewed about his upcoming strategy to deal with homelessness and panhandling—he says he will reveal more about his plans after he assigns city bureaus May 31.

"Panhandling is a subset of the homelessness issue," Hales tells WW in a statement. "But there are other aspects as well, including the so-called 'travelers' who come to Portland each summer. We will be working this year to fully understand the scope of the problem and to seek solutions."

Then-Mayor Tom Potter pushed through a city ordinance in 2007 that outlawed sitting or lying on the sidewalk from 7 am to 9 pm. A judge later ruled the sit-lie ordinance violated the Oregon Constitution and conflicted with state laws.

No sooner did Hales arrive in office than the PBA lobbied for House Bill 2963, which would allow cities to make their own rules on sidewalk use. The bill has passed the Oregon House and is being considered in the Senate.

The city never challenged the judge's ruling on the ordinance's constitutionality—Sam Adams was mayor at the time and decided to let the controversy die.

But during his election campaign, Hales gave hints the PBA could expect his support on the issue. In a questionnaire during the 2012 primary race, the PBA asked candidates if they supported "regulation of the sidewalk environment." Other candidates gave long, equivocal answers.

Hales' one-word response: "Yes."

But without a clear measurement of success, Hales risks his political capital—and City Hall's time and money—on a problem that, by all accounts, won't go away.

"The only way you can get to some kind of a win," says Marc Jolin, executive director of transitional housing nonprofit JOIN, "is if you can get folks to agree that we're looking at certain behaviors, rather than populations of people."

Brooke Howes, who owns the Italian food cart Built to Grill on a parking lot at Southwest 3rd Avenue and Washington Street—two blocks south of Kidd's lamp post—says he sees street kids circle lone pedestrians and demand cash. He says some have even threatened to squirt syringes filled with blood on customers. "I don't think this should be a circus," he says.

Last December, six street kids were arrested after a brawl broke out—some kids allegedly cut several food carts' electrical and propane lines—and were confronted by cart owners. A few kids pulled knives.

"I don't want to impose on anyone's rights," Howes says. "But if the police would shake them down and search them, they'd find plenty of stuff. I had people trying to stab me—that’s not cool.”