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Salem is wrong to ban sidewalk sitting

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Generalization.  It’s where a conclusion is reached based on insufficient evidence and without consideration of all the possible variables.  It was one of my favorite tools from a young age, usually used unsuccessful, where I wanted to do something or possess something and argued that everyone else had it or did it.

Another matter that is indisputably part of everyday modern life, at least in these United States, is divisiveness.  Almost daily, and seemingly more often experienced since the inauguration of the current president, we find ourselves immersed in issues that lead to divergent points of view, dividing the American public into hostile camps characterized by bombastic name-calling and dire threats directed at those who differ in point of view.

This writer could choose from many issues of current status but narrows the list to homelessness.  Case in point:  the city of Salem proposed the following city ordinance:  “It shall be unlawful for any person to sit or lie down upon a public sidewalk, or upon a blanket, chair or stool, or any other object placed upon a public sidewalk, during the hours between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.”

As it happened in 2009, an ordinance like the one proposed in Salem was another very similar to it proposed in Portland. In that case, a Multnomah County Circuit Court ruled such a “sit-lie” ordinance unconstitutional because it was at odds with Oregon law. There was considerable negative feedback before city councilors rejected it.  Among those who voiced opposition were townspeople, the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, a city councilor, Salem’s chief of police and Oregon’s American Civil Liberties Union.

A representative sample from those who spoke regarding the proposed ordinance were statements such as that the “Proposal targets and dehumanizes the most vulnerable part  of our population,” “Compassion’s needed for the homeless,” “Salem can do more than it is already doing,”  “Respect for police who are just trying to fix a problem,” and that “These kinds of ordinances violate individuals’ right.”  No one spoke up in favor of it.

The city attorney, whose office prepared the Salem ordinance, declined to comment. Ultimately, Salem’s city councilors voted that the city of Salem mayor establish a task force to study homelessness in downtown and North Salem. Unfortunately, this kind of referral action often means that a controversial proposal will find a convenient resting place in the graveyard of good intentions.

Nevertheless, what if the city of Salem, through leadership by the mayor and advisors, analyzed individual problems sufficient to tailor city actions with a high probability of success. First and foremost, what’s  given is that there is no one fit to achieve success for every homeless person; hence, keep the fallacy of generalization in mind.  As case after case will reveal, homeless persons are homeless for many reasons, including, for example, mental health problems, physical health problems, lack of education/training, and an unwillingness to work.

If each  homeless person has been individually interviewed and nothing’s worked, after ‘no stone’s been left unturned,’ then it would seem that an ordinance would only be approved to deal with lawbreakers and those able-bodied but unwilling to be trained for work and jobs.  Otherwise, plans with the means to realize successful outcomes should be implemented, followed-up and accordingly adjusted when needed.

In the final analysis there must be ways and means to respect and protect normal street traffic where every American is free to go about his legal business while also finding resolution to the number among us in homeless circumstances. After all, while it may come across as Pollyannaish, this one, among so many divisive challenges in our nation today, is one that can be solved locally…should we decide to put our heads, hearts, wallets and know-how to the task.

(Gene H. McIntyre lives in Keizer.)