If you are not familiar with the sweeps, they happen when the city decides - either on their own or because of citizen (read: middle class) complaints - to clear out anyone sleeping in a certain area. They are required to give at least 24 hours written notice before they clear out an area, but that is not always that much time if you happen to be gone for the day. Then the police show up one day in force, and make everyone who they think is sleeping there move out of the area, with the threat of arrest should they not comply. If people are gone, their possessions are confiscated. Now, legally, the city must hold their possessions (which for many is their worldly belongings) for at least 30 days (4th amendment and all that), and make a reasonable effort to get it back to them. But having seen this stuff firsthand, I can say I rarely saw any effort to locate the owners, and in fact i have seen friends of mine who tried to get their stuff back have a very difficult time finding out where it was being kept.
Often the folks who were being cleared out would ask the officers where they can sleep, if they aren’t allowed to sleep in this area. They were never given a straight answer. Often they were told by the officers, “I don’t know, you just can’t sleep here.” I have asked officers this myself and not been given an answer. I have been in a room with the downtown Portland precinct commander who was asked this question, and even he couldn’t give us a straight answer. So what those who sleep outside hear is that you can’t sleep here, and you can’t sleep anywhere. That you are not welcome in this city. That basic life sustaining activities like sleeping are not available to you because of your economic status.
Given all of this, I find it telling that the powers that be don’t like it when people use the word “sweep.” The police spokesmen says that clearly in the article. They don’t like that term. Because it describes accurately what is happening: the sweeping of human beings. Just look at any article about the sweeps. You will likely see the city, the police, and the media talk about cleaning up an area as a reason for the sweeps. Cleaning up people. Sure, they will point to the actual garbage in the area, and the need to clean that up. (Which, by the way, is a by product of not having a garbage can outside of your back door like us good middle class consumers do.) But in the end, the result is the sweeping of human beings.
And at the end of the day, sweeps will not work. They are the city wide equivalent of me shoving all of my toys under my bed, and then telling my mom that my room is clean. Only instead of a messy toys in my room, we are talking about people, and the injustice that so many people sleep outside every night in our prosperous nation. I do not have all the answers for what a city should do. I am a pastor, not a public policy person. But regardless of what solution they come up with, people deserve to be treated like human beings, deserve to practice life sustaining activities without harassment, and deserve to have a say in the solution to their own situation.
And sweeps deny them all of this, which is why they need to end.