Robert Ehlert: The need for ‘civil sidewalks’

July 30, 2013 

Robert Ehlert

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I don’t envy the Boise City Council’s task of writing and enforcing ordinances meant to affect the behavior of the aggressive homeless and panhandlers who live among us. That’s because for every law there is an exception and for every violator there are a dozen who are not.

Nonetheless, at 6 p.m. today citizens can have their say at a public hearing in City Hall regarding the “civil sidewalk” ordinances, which have been drafted to “curb harassing or unsafe solicitations of money, sitting and lying on sidewalks, and other issues that negatively affect the city’s public spaces.”

I am just returning from a joyous week that was bookended with two weekend weddings, one in Portland and one in Sacramento.

The memory of both celebratory unions — one involving my son in Oregon — was marred by the ugliness of incidents in Portland that linger in my mind and which provide something for Boise leaders and citizens to consider in efforts to keep our city “most livable.”

I am referring to the skateboard beating of a downtown Portland merchant at the hands of so-called “homeless street kids,” whom some in the Portland classify as “road warriors” and “summer travelers.”

All those innocuous terms betray the brutality of what happened during the week of July 15. According to Portland media reports, a 70-year-old employee at a downtown outdoor store came out to hose down the sidewalk in front of his workplace; the vagabond youth who were occupying the sidewalk with sleeping bags and related homeless gear started having words with the employee until one of them sneaked up from behind him and struck him on his head with a skateboard. The victim was hospitalized for most of the week. He required internal and external stitches and was quite badly bruised, media reports in the area said.

A few days later, a fellow outdoor store employee who had been interviewed by a Portland TV station about the incident, was recognized by other “summer travelers” and he, too, was assaulted.

An aberration? An isolated incident? I witnessed the throngs of young toughs and their followers on other occasions while in town. Nobody bothered me, but then I didn’t say anything that provoked anyone to “go off.”

The author of an editorial in The Oregonian about the still at-large skateboard-as-weapon assailant referred to him as a “knucklehead,” but I can think of a few more appropriate terms: coward, criminal and cheap-shot creep.

I can’t judge how serious a problem Portland has based on one recent visit, but, like Boise, the city is abuzz about what to do and how to deal with seasonal sidewalk dwellers who get aggressive.

There is a delicate balance of protections to consider for all stakeholders. There are rights to be protected all around, and there are bound to be unintended consequences.

Among the duties of the city of Boise and the police are to protect and serve. To do that, a city needs legal recourse to stop or prevent any group of people from taking advantage of the others in opportunistic locations and situations.

So, let us debate the civil liberties of all involved. But please don’t withhold the tools the city needs to keep us safe.

I am happy Boise is among the most livable cities in the country, and I credit our leadership for that. Leadership, though, includes writing ordinances and policing them.

Accommodating people who are down on their luck by directing them to services is the honorable and charitable thing to do. Hitting people with skateboards and using intimidation tactics crosses every line.

© 2013 Idaho Statesman

Robert Ehlert is the Statesman’s editorial page editor. Contact him at 377-6437, or on Twitter @IDS_HelloIdaho.

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