By editorial board • 

Task force unlikely to hit on better solution than churches

Merchants don’t feel the McMinnville City Council has done enough to control disruptive downtown behavior, serving to send shoppers packing. In response, the council has asked a task force to spend six months developing solutions.

Although business and civic leaders seem loath to single out the homeless community, it’s clearly a significant source of the misbehavior. That’s why the appointees include a homeless person and several representatives of agencies serving the homeless.

Let’s consult the Magic 8 Ball: Will the task force offer anything substantial when it reports back in March? The Magic 8 Ball says, “Outlook not good.”

The task force may urge further strengthening of downtown police presence, perhaps new laws against smoking, loitering, panhandling and availability of certain alcoholic beverages.

However, it’s hard to see any novel ideas emerging. Cities everywhere are grappling with the problem, and we are aware of few breakthroughs.
Ironically, by the time the merchant community confronted the council July 25, the downtown homeless had largely dispersed. In fact, they all but disappeared for a week or two in mid-July.

The reason? Leaders at two of the Second Street churches ministering to the homeless, First Baptist and First Presbyterian, began taking a harder stand on disruptive behavior. In addition, First Baptist removed a portable toilet from its parking lot.

While still responding to the homeless with love and compassion, the churches let them know unruly behavior would no longer be tolerated. And while it didn’t solve the problem, it fostered some amelioration.

We understand why the city defines this task force as one dealing with behavior, not homelessness. The fact remains, however, that a great deal of the bad behavior causing concerns arises from the homeless or otherwise nomadic population congregating downtown.

Yes, like many municipalities, we have a homeless problem. And to address it, we need to find a middle ground between running the homeless out of town and letting them run amok in the middle of town.

Facing the same issue, Salem recently eyed a ban on sitting or lying on city sidewalks during the daytime, only to run afoul of people’s rights. Public sidewalks are, after all, public.

That’s the price of a free society. Government can push people around only so much.

Instead, the Salem City Council decided to — yes, you guessed it — appoint a task force to study the problem. Unfortunately, the Magic 8 Ball predicts a similar outcome.

Long-term solutions seem almost intractable. But the short-term solution may boil down to nothing more than the revised church approach: Be compassionate, but firm.

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