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Portland Tribune

Challenges face Wheeler's homeless camping restrictions

By Jim Redden,


The City Council is expected to pass Mayor Ted Wheeler’s proposed restrictions on public homeless camping on Wednesday, June 7. Despite overwhelming opposition from most of those who testified at the May 31 hearing , polls have consistently shown the vast majority of Portlanders want to end public camping. Four of the five council members are backing the ordinance. Only Commissioner Carmen Rubio has not yet said how she will vote.

But even if the council passes the restrictions, much has to happen before they can be widely enforced. First, the restriction will have to pass legal challenges threatened at the previous hearing. Then the city will have to create enough new shelter capacity to reasonably argue homeless people displaced by the restrictions have somewhere approved where they can go if they choose. Then the Portland Police Bureau must have enough officers to enforce the restrictions, while struggling with staffing shortages during a surge in shootings, homicides and other serious crimes.

The proposed restrictions would ban camping between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. on most sidewalks, in city parks and near schools, day care centers, construction sites, and environmental zones. Homeless people who find other places to sleep overnight would have to dismantle their camps every morning and remove their belongings during the day. People who do not comply would receive a warning for the first two violations. After three violations, they could be fined up to $100 or be sent to jail for up to 30 days.

Wheeler said the restrictions are part of a larger plan that will help the homeless move off the streets.

“My goal is to have enough housing, shelter and treatment access available so that we can fully eliminate unsanctioned, unsheltered camping within the city of Portland. I believe that this (ordinance) would be helpful to those who are currently struggling on our streets, and I believe this is what Portlanders, in general, are asking for as well,” Wheeler said at the hearing.

Most of those who testified last week were skeptical, however, including Ed Johnson, director of litigation at Oregon Law Center, who said there is “no doubt” they will be challenged in court. He said they violate Oregon law that requirements such restrictions to be “objectively reasonable.”

“It is not reasonable to expect people to pack up and disappear every morning when they have nowhere to go. It is unreasonable to throw people in jail for 30 days after two warnings for violating an incomprehensible law,” Johnson said.

A lawyer with the ACLU of Oregon added the restriction may also be unconstitutional under Martin v. Boise, a 2018 federal ruling by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that prohibits cities from arresting people for sleeping on public property unless there is enough shelter available to accommodate them. There are only about 2,000 shelter spaces in Multnomah County compared to more than 6,000 homeless people tracked down in the most recent federally-mandated Point in Time Count.

To increase shelter capacity, the council has approved the creation of six large managed campsites in various parts of town. Wheeler said the first one in Southeast Portland is scheduled to open in July, with the next probably in the fall. But Wheeler is also asking the Multnomah County Commission to contributed $20 million in unexpected voter-approved Metro supportive housing services funds to the project. Although Chair Jessica Vega Pederson said she will request the funds, the rest of the commission has yet to agree.

The council has another option, however. It has been contributing around $30,000 to $40,000 a year to the city-count Joint Office of Homeless Services. The council voted to renew the contract last Wednesday, but agreed to review it December to decide whether the county is making the policy and spending changes it wants to see.

Widely enforcing the restriction would increase the workload of the Portland police. The bureau is already stretched thin because of budget cuts enacted by the council during the social justice protests following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020. Although the council has approved the hiring of more officers since then, it takes many months to recruit, hire and train them before they can be assigned to patrol duties.

During last week’s hearing, Wheeler said he is confident the restrictions can be phased in as enough additional shelters space is created to legally enforce them.

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