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Society

'Law of the streets' rules western US city

The western US city of Portland is known for its easygoing lifestyle. But an acrimonious dispute between food cart operators and homeless youth threatens that image, with government unable or unwilling to intervene.

Located in the heart of downtown Portland, the Brunch Box is among the favorites of the city's famed food carts. Locals and tourists from as far away as Australia have raved about the mouth-watering breakfast fare, and the semi-mobile establishment has even impressed oft-finicky food bloggers.

But something has been hurting business, co-owner and operator Ryan Incles said, like a fly stuck in the grilled cheese sandwiches the cart is best known for: groups of homeless "street kids" who harass customers and Incles' cart.

"It's been a concern for a while," Incles told DW. "Customers don't want to deal with it. There's not a whole lot that's been done."

And the police, he said, sometimes do little to help - an issue complicated by court rulings that have struck down "sit-lie" laws, meaning people can sit or lie down on public sidewalks for long periods of time.

A 1997 file photo showing a Pitbull dog in Frankfurt, Germany.

Some homeless youth use pit bulls to intimidate passersby

On December 3, a long-simmering dispute between food cart operators and homeless youths boiled over, resulting in a brawl that ended in six arrests. Brass knuckles, knives and a baton were allegedly used in the fight, according to local newspaper "The Oregonian." One food cart operator was injured.

Incles said he wasn't surprised by the violence.

"It's been an ongoing dispute [between food cart operators and homeless youth]," he said. "We've had words with them before. We've had to call the cops several times."

Tricky balance

The rights of the homeless - versus the rights of small businesses - is a tricky issue that cities across the US have struggled to deal with.

Portland is no exception.

"Any time tension builds between different groups of people, we would be concerned about potential conflict," said Kathy Oliver, executive director of Outside In, which specializes in assisting homeless youth and other marginalized segments of society. "Since violence has occurred, it is even more important for our community to look for opportunities to address and resolve the tension to prevent further violence."

But the food cart operators say they and their customers are often harassed by street kids, with threats ranging from verbal insults to physical violence - such as threatening to poke someone with a bloody needle - against people who refuse to give them money. The December 3 fight allegedly began after street kids cut a hose that pumped propane fuel to one of the food carts.

And when the police intervene in milder confrontations, Incles said, there is often little they can do legally - if they even intervene at all.

"The city seems to have turned a blind eye so far," the cart operator said. "Hopefully [with the Dec. 3 incident], they'll take notice."

Scotty, 23, a homeless youth in Portland, Oregon.

There are an estimated 2,500 homeless youth in Portland - the highest per capita rate in the United States

Sobering statistics

Portland's troubles are reflected in some sobering statistics.

With the highest per capita rate of youth homelessness in the United States, an estimated 2,500 Portland youth live on the streets, in shelters or squats. According to studies, over 90 percent of Portland's street kids are victims of sexual and physical abuse. The easy availability of methamphetamine and some of the cheapest heroin in North America fuels a high rate of drug addiction. Infection rates of incurable diseases like Hepatitis C and HIV are high. The average life expectancy for a homeless youth living on the streets is 26 years, and they are often shunned by the general population.

"Homeless populations often feel marginalized," said Oliver. "When people walk by them on the streets and do not acknowledge them or say something derogatory, it can further traumatize people who are struggling. Although there have been some incidents of violence targeting the homelessness, it is more often the comments or looks that people receive that make them feel discounted and unwelcome."

National problem

In helping both the homeless and small businesses, other cities have faced similar issues.

In southern California, an October fight between two restaurant owners and a homeless man known as "Orbits" resulted in the homeless man being admitted to a hospital with near-fatal injuries, as reported by the alt-weekly Monterey County Weekly. The paper reported the incident led to a countywide debate about balancing homeless rights while encouraging a business-friendly environment, not unlike the debate that has been going on in Portland for some time.

"Portland is one community, among many nationally, that has a homeless population in need of support," said Oliver. "Our community, with significant leadership at both the city and county level, is working together to identify and offer effective strategies and resources to support the homeless members in our community."

Food cart operators agree that something needs to be done about the large numbers of homeless youth - and soon.

Following the early December fight, The Oregonian reported that food cart operator Amir Amani said homeless youths threatened to kill him after seeing him speaking with law enforcement, proclaiming he would face "street justice." It later noted that his food cart, the Persian Plate, has not been open since.

"It's the nature of sharing the sidewalk," said Incles of the problems with homeless youth. "Hopefully this doesn't escalate further."

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