Remember the Occupy Wall Street and related protests that commandeered America’s city streets and parks about 10 years ago?

John Balentine, a former managing editor for the Lakes Region Weekly, lives in Windham.

Compared with many of those protests that turned violent, Occupy Portland, based in Lincoln Park across from City Hall, was relatively peaceful with protesters sleeping overnight in tents and hanging out in the daytime as they railed against income inequality.

Fast forward a decade and downtown Portland is again embroiled in more occupying protests, this time focused on homelessness. Homeless individuals and their advocates have set up tent cities in prominent downtown locales. They are protesting the closure of the Preble Street Resource Center homeless shelter due to the coronavirus, as well as seeking more aid for Portland’s homeless population in general.

My question regarding the establishment of permanent demonstration camps on taxpayer-owned property – where protesters live rent-free for days, weeks and even months on end – is this: Why doesn’t Portland enforce laws regarding loitering and disturbing the peace?

The takeover of Portland parks started with Occupy, which went unmitigated by local leaders. Now homeless people and their advocates from Preble Street are camping on the sidewalk directly in front of City Hall as well as in Deering Oaks Park. They’ve also erected food and medical tents where first aid is distributed, including Narcan when someone overdoses on opioids.

I appreciate the plight of homeless people and have long pondered what would turn their lives around. Drugs and alcohol, as well as mental illness and family breakdown, play a big part in homelessness and there’s no easy solution. But government aid has not worked and, as proof, there are more homeless people in Portland than ever.

Meanwhile, such encampments and demonstrations are making a mess and menace of our once-beautiful and welcoming Forest City. Visitors to Portland and city residents alike probably wonder why tents are allowed on city property. No one, not even the most woke among us, dares walk through the parks after sundown. And we navigate downtown roadways trying not to hit panhandlers as they loiter precariously on nearly every traffic island.

But the encampments and loitering are allowed to go on – as if those in power care not for the greater public good. Why?

Consider the issue from another perspective and with different “protesters” involved: Portland leaders would never let KKK members or neo-Nazis set up their tents on city property for weeks at a time, let alone even one night. They’d invoke existing laws to nip that social ill in the bud.

But since the homeless are politically protected, loitering and disturbing-the-peace laws go unenforced. They clearly have special rights no one else has. Just ask taxpaying residents near the city’s homeless shelters, who have been dealing with loitering, disturbing the peace, public intoxication, lewdness and open air drug dealing for years now. They blame the city for allowing the menace to continue unabated.

The homelessness crisis is a complicated one with many causes and, as such, requires broad-based solutions to include churches and employers, not just government handouts. But in regard to activities on city property, the homeless don’t deserve special rights or exemptions from established law. The law must be applied equally, no matter if you’re rich, poor, Black, white, politically protected or not.

Portland leaders have long been weak on homelessness. Their appeasement allows the homeless and their advocates to grow bolder while the rest of us wait and wonder how long until Portland turns into another Skid Row in Los Angeles with entrenched tent cities dominating the landscape.

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