Street kids confronting authority on Third Street
"It's the popular street in McMinnville," said Zachary West, one of the self-named "street kids" who congregate in City Park and the US Bank Plaza.
"Tourists and people who live here hang out downtown," he said. "So do we. We have no place else to chill."
However, unlike tourists and local shoppers, the street kids have raised the ire of local merchants, who feel their shenanigans scare away potential business. As a result, they have attracted the attention of McMinnville police and their park ranger surrogates.
The McMinnville Downtown Association recently ponied up $10,000 to cover the cost of having radio-equipped park rangers add downtown to their menu of park assignments. The police department agreed to provide training and oversight to the rangers, who are empowered to write citations but mandated to call for police assistance when situations turn dicey.
While the new patrol presence has come in for high praise on the part of merchants, police officials and civic leaders, the street kids feel they are being targeted and harassed.
Capt. Dennis Marks said tensions have arisen between police and the street kids periodically all summer, but the street kids have become more confrontational since the new patrol initiative was implemented.
Last Wednesday, police responded to the corner of Northeast Ford and Third streets after received four calls about a large group of youths smoking marijuana there.
Five officers responded, but they found no evidence of marijuana use and made no arrests. The in-force response prompted loud protests from the street kids.
"They always come down and harass us," said Kevin Judson, 24. "We're not allowed to hang out anywhere.
"They kicked us out of the park, they kicked us out of the plaza. We have no place to hang out anymore."
Judson said it feels as if the city doesn't want them here downtown or in the parks. He said the lack of any public place where they can hang out is frustrating.
"The park and the plaza are both public places, but they tell us to move along," he said. "There are no arcades, no YMCA. We have no place to hang out."
The street kids are not a cohesive group and defy easy definition.
Some are homeless, while others are not. Some are still in high school, while others have been out for several years. Some have already been in trouble with the law, while others have kept their noses clean.
"It feels as though the cops, whenever they bother us, they are taking away another human right," said 15-year-old Orion Taylor. "We get humiliated and intimidated. They are enforcing the laws on us, but not everyone else."
Marks, who came down to talk to the street kids himself in the wake of the incident, said his officers are simply responding to the calls they receive and enforcing the rules and laws that are on the books. If the street youths behaved better, he said, they wouldn't receive so much attention.
"All the things are available to them if they behave," he said. "But they are making lewd sexual comments, smoking marijuana, littering with cigarette butts and blocking traffic.
"We don't have a desire to impinge on their freedom to assemble and talk. But we need to make sure others rights are protected too."
The city enacted a park ordinance in 1999 in order to crackdown on disorderly behavior in city parks — notably City Park, just west of downtown — from troublesome youths. The rules ban pets from playground areas and prohibit disorderly conduct.
The US Bank Plaza, which is privately owned, has its own rules. They include no littering, no smoking and no lewd, vulgar language or behavior.
Police say they are enforcing those restrictions when violations are called in.
Ashliegh Van Houte, 20, was cited for criminal trespass at City Park. She admitted, "I ran my mouth off to the police," but said she was merely responding to harassment.
She termed kicking kids out of the park "pathetic."
"You shouldn't be able to kick people out of a public park," she said. "Some are homeless and don't have the option to go somewhere else."
But Marks said the street kids bring trouble on themselves by blocking sidewalk and engaging in offensive and disruptive behavior.
"When they make lewd or offensive comments to those walking by, those people feel harassed and uncomfortable," he said. When things like that happen, he said, they can expect the police to respond.
While no arrests were made at Third and Ford the afternoon of the response there, police did make two arrests for theft of services nearby, after discovering youths charging cell phones from a private electrical outlet on Ford.
Newberg has a youth drop-in center, but McMinnville does not. Judson said something like that would help.
Marks countered by saying, when police were having trouble with skateboarders a few years ago, they cooperated with the city in drafting a plan for a local skate park and going on to see it through to construction. He said the current crop of local youths might get better results if it displayed that kind of positive and cooperative initiative.