Robert Stone, originally of Cheyenne, Wyo., sits outside near a coffee shop in downtown Salem. The homeless Salem resident said he would "probably" be impacted by a proposed ban on sitting or lying down on public rights of way. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)
Nothing is set in stone yet, though it could be in three weeks.
A proposed law that has divided residents over its impacts on homeless people or downtown businesses could face revisions, councilors say, a week after the city of Salem released a draft of the proposal to the public.
Councilors Cara Kaser and Chris Hoy say the current proposal would at best get divided approval from the Salem City Council.
The draft city ordinance would, among other things, ban sitting or lying on public spaces for most hours of the day.
“You don’t ever want to see new rules with a one-vote margin,” Hoy told Salem Reporter. “I’m looking at ways we can modify it and yet still achieve the outcomes to help the downtown.”
Illustrating how slim the vote could be, Hoy and Kaser themselves could fall on opposite sides. Hoy said he would still vote for an unchanged version. Kaser, whose mostly-downtown ward is ground zero for much of the discussion, would not.
“In my mind, it’s always better to get a little bit more support. I don’t think every council decision needs to be unanimous, because that’s not the world we live in, but having more than a thin majority is helpful,” said Kaser. “That’s what I’m striving to accomplish.”
The recently released draft shows the council plans to discuss the ordinance Nov. 25 — three days before Thanksgiving.
So what does the law currently propose and what would they change?
The Sidewalk and Public Space Ordinance — known informally as “sit-lie” — is effectively a handful of proposed laws bundled together.
The ordinance would ban sitting or lying on sidewalks and other public rights-of-way from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. It would also ban leaving personal property unattended on public property during those same hours. And it would ban tents and other structures from sidewalks at all hours.
Salem police would have to warn violators on first offense and could write a ticket for a second offense.
If those crimes occur within one of Salem’s crime prevention districts — also known as “exclusion zones” — a person could be banned from that area. A person who ignores the ban could be arrested for trespassing.
Salem has two such exclusion zones: north Salem and downtown. Numerous crimes can lead to a ban in those areas, from violent crimes to a minor violating curfew.
Kaser said councilors should consider disregarding the sit-lie facet of the proposal.
“Out of the whole ordinance, that’s the piece that I’ve heard the most comments on,” she said.
Removing that piece, she said, would quell concerns that the ordinance overly punishes homeless residents, yet it could cut down on tents and camping downtown.
“I was surprised the city doesn’t have a camping ordinance already in place,” she said. “We don’t have any ordinances around creating housing on public property. That’s concerning for me for a number of reasons.”
Hoy, retired undersheriff of Clackamas County, suggested councilors could drop the threat of excluding people for violating the new ordinance. That would prevent the possibility of trespassing arrests, he said, that opponents worry about.
“Exclusion zones could ultimately result in a trespassing situation, which is not the (desired) outcome,” he said. He added that the prohibition on structures is needed.
“To me, the ban on erecting structures is a no-brainer and is not problematic in my mind in anyway. We shouldn’t be having sidewalks with tents or anything. Period,” he said.
However, neither Hoy’s nor Kaser’s ideas are guaranteed to be embraced by constituents on either side of the issue, they acknowledged.
“I don’t know the answer to that,” said Hoy. “The conversations are continuing, that’s the bottom line. The conversations are continuing and we’ll see where they end up.”
The divisiveness has been apparent at three public forums held in the months since Urban Development Director Kristin Retherford and Salem Police Department Chief Jerry Moore announced the proposal in July.
Some worry the new city law would sacrifice the safety of homeless residents, who often congregate downtown to be near homeless services providers. Others say it’s needed to protect business owners and shoppers from disruptive behaviors.
No data has been presented publicly showing such behaviors have gotten worse. Several business owners have told Salem Reporter it has. Moore told Salem Reporter in July he believes it has.
Councilors also believe it has gotten worse, and said they are trying to help clean up areas like downtown without criminalizing the homeless.
Kaser described that effort as “threading that needle.”
“It’s about: What is the right thing to do for the community that’s going to benefit the community the most?” Kaser said. “Knowing there are people who feel like we’re doing the wrong thing, and people who think we didn’t do enough of the ‘right’ thing, that’s politics in a nutshell.”
Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, firstname.lastname@example.org or @TroyWB.