In early November, Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle published an op-ed in the Oregonian criticizing Portland leadership for failing to adequately address “unsafe” conditions outside the offices of Sorel, a Columbia subsidiary. Boyle ultimately threatened to move the corporate offices out of Portland if improvements were not made. The piece cited threats to safety, frequent theft, and delicately-phrased allusions to houselessness as reasons for this consideration, and asked for an increase in police presence downtown. In addition to being the CEO of a sizable company with stores and offices in Portland, Boyle also donated $15,000 to Mayor Ted Wheeler’s campaign, making him the second largest individual contributor, a fact which framed the way many of us initially understood the City’s next move.
By the end of November, the City of Portland had installed new “Pedestrian Use Only” zones which make sitting or resting illegal in a public space in 8 new areas downtown, including just outside the Columbia Sportswear flagship store. The public outcry was immediate and Mayor Wheeler attempted to justify his actions through a string of Nov. 30th tweets.
We have our own message for the Mayor as a representative of all Portlanders, but this is an open letter to Tim Boyle.
Dear Tim Boyle,
We are some of the organizers of the sit-in protest on the sidewalk outside the building that houses your Columbia Sportswear flagship store and the new offices for Sorel. We hope you noticed that we were joined by representatives from Sisters of the Road, The Village Coalition, Street Roots, and about 50 community members who were as concerned as we were about a series of events we found highly suspect. We gathered to sit in solidarity with those who have no place of their own to rest and who are consistently denied the right to exist peacefully. We also sought to expose and resist the practice of Portland politicians catering to campaign donors. We did not yet know that you were actually conspiring with the Mayor. We aimed to send the message that Mayor Wheeler was not fulfilling his campaign promises to address Portland’s housing crisis and rising houseless population. We demanded the removal of all no-sit zones and the ending of all policies that treat houselessness as a crime.
It would seem that you did notice, but did not truly hear us. You responded in the Oregonian on December 5th and what you said is true; your original op-ed “did not address homelessness generally,” and you were careful to not explicitly conflate homelessness with crime. However, you did name encounters with individuals experiencing houselessness sleeping in the doorway as a “menace” your employees have faced. Just so we’re clear, our action was not just a response to your personal and problematic opinions. Our goal was to bring attention to a chain of influence, and to call out the City’s outrageous, counterproductive solutions.
On Dec. 3rd, Wheeler responded to a tweet praising new policies downtown (and the “gentle” police treatment of our protest),
We are not fooled. No matter how sweetly you spin it, the bottom-line is: These zones make it illegal to sit or otherwise rest and fundamentally target people who most often must use city streets to sit, rest, and live. It is evident by the outpouring of support for our sit-in and the immediate and scathing critiques voiced by houseless advocates and the public that these no-sit policies are easily recognized as criminalization of houselessness. Moreover, we know now that the Mayor colluded with you to scapegoat houseless people so he could increase police presence.
By protesting these zones, we are opposing the inherent conflation of homelessness and crime. Mayor Wheeler has accused sit-in protesters of that very conflation, in an attempt to obscure his manipulation of the public’s trust. Pointing out injustice is not the creation of injustice. Injustice is exactly what the zones now outside your store accomplish. No-sit policies are a collective punishment against all people that live without resting places of their own for the perceived crimes of a few. These policies are tools to segregate the downtown shopping district for the benefit of the PBA and its patrons. These polices divide our social services and business community, and land the most vulnerable people in court or worse off, jail. Here we want to point to the recent words of departing Executive Director of Street Roots, Israel Bayer: “All the homeless camp sweeps, private security and law enforcement in the world isn’t going to solve our housing shortage or homelessness.”
Mr. Boyle, we hope to help you understand the necessity of seeing the no-sit zones within the broader context of houselessness in Portland. Though rates of people sleeping in shelters have improved, houselessness in Multnomah County has “increased nearly 10 percent in the last two years,” meaning that “there are now at least 4,177 people without permanent homes on any given night in Portland,” according to 2017 figures. The housing crisis, which has officially been in a State of Emergency since October of last year, has been an obvious factor in that recent growth: “In the time between the 2015 and 2017 count, Portland rent rose 20 times faster than the area’s median income.” As you might expect, houseless rates reflect longtime racial inequalities: “Roughly 37 percent of people on the streets are people of color, though they make up less than 29 percent of the county’s population as a whole.” In particular, Native Americans are “402 percent more likely to be homeless than people who are White.”
You are not alone in your limited understanding of the challenges facing Portlanders struggling to survive in public spaces. In our November newsletter, we spoke out against the Multnomah County Library’s new policies which include violations up to 3 year’s expulsion for: leaving items unattended, using the bathroom to bathe and/or shave, bringing animals inside, sleeping in or on library property, not wearing shoes, eating food (especially food with a “strong odor”), not looking at the literature, sitting or lounging on the floor, and having a “bad odor”, which are clearly nothing but thinly veiled excuses for discriminating against houseless people. The library’s mission states “We serve every patron with respect and dignity. We offer resources that advance opportunity and equity.” Why then does it seek to deny these resources to those who need them most?
However, guidance exists for public institutions seeking to mitigate conflict between the haves and the have-nots. The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions states in its Guidelines for Library Services to People Experiencing Homelessness, “people experiencing homelessness face a series of barriers preventing them from obtaining equal access to library services due to their living conditions, poor mental and physical health, and prejudice”, and sets forth progressive and ethical recommendations for libraries. Calling for bans directed at the most vulnerable is a cruel and false solution to concerns about shared public access. The American Library Association offers this recommendation for developing guidelines for library patrons: Policies “… should not restrict access to the library by persons who merely inspire the anger or annoyance of others. Policies based upon appearance or behavior that is merely annoying or that merely generates negative subjective reactions from others, do not meet the necessary standards.”.
It is greatly disheartening that both private business and public institutions could be so brutal in their treatment of the city’s most vulnerable people. Especially when advocacy groups have provided real, appropriate solutions but these recommendations fall on deaf ears or are not even sought out by policy makers.
A frequent response we’ve seen on social media as this story has developed is the allegedly common-sense position of “Well, I sympathize with the homeless but I wouldn’t want them outside my business or home.” Mr. Boyle, please join us in criticizing that housed individuals in our community feel comfortable dictating where or even whether houseless people can use public space. It is a tragedy that as a nation we consistently allow people to go without shelter (even though nationally there are six times as many empty homes as there are people in need of them) and then consider even the briefest encounter with their suffering a nuisance.
Mr. Boyle, we aren’t asking you or your customers to solve houselessness all on your own. In this one instance where the people who’ve been left behind are sitting right before your eyes, we are asking that you recognize your privilege and use it for the good of others, rather than instinctively catering to your own comfort or convenience. Please let our neighbors rest.
Today, as we gear up for another cold and wet winter, our houseless neighbors are depending on community support and resources to survive. Doorways and libraries may be the only available shelter for some. Can you imagine yourself in that position, Mr. Boyle?
Please join us in calling for an immediate removal of no-sit zones. Please prove your leadership as a supporter of the houseless by resigning from the Portland Business Association until they end their misplaced and immoral crusade against the Portland houseless community. Furthermore, please join us in calling for an immediate end to sweeps, library expulsions, and any other tactic that does little more than humiliate, endanger, and attempt to force human suffering out of sight and out of mind.
As the holidays approach, we ask all Portlanders to give generously and express love through direct action.