With less than a week until the city of Portland is set to begin enforcement of its daytime camping ban, intended to clear unhoused people from city streets and green spaces, a legal challenge could put those plans on hold.
A Multnomah County judge is scheduled to rule Thursday on a motion to pause the ban pending a trial over its constitutionality.
The Portland City Council approved restrictions on when and where people experiencing homelessness can place their belongings, sit or sleep in early June. The ordinance severely restricts where and how unhoused individuals can camp, particularly during the day.
City officials said at the time they would spend months educating community members about the ban before enforcing it, because getting more people into shelter, not criminalizing homelessness, was their goal. It wasn’t until last month that they announced plans to begin enforcement.
In late September, lawyers for a group of Portlanders experiencing homelessness filed a class action lawsuit in Multnomah County Circuit Court challenging the new restrictions.
The Oregon Law Center, which is representing the plaintiffs, asked the court to issue a temporary restraining order to prevent the city from enforcing the restrictions until the lawsuit is resolved.
The hearing on that request is scheduled for Thursday morning.
The lawsuit alleges the city’s camping restrictions violate current Oregon law and the state constitution because they subject people who are involuntarily homeless to unreasonable punishments – including potential fines and jail time – for engaging in unavoidable activities such as sleeping and staying warm and dry.
Federal judges in the 9th Circuit, which covers Oregon and eight other nearby states, have ruled that way, using cases out of Grants Pass and Boise to assert that cities can’t cite people for sleeping or existing on all public property if there are not enough shelter beds to accommodate them all.
The Portland ordinance forbids camping at any time in public parks or near schools, and it outlaws camping in any public place between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Once the city begins enforcing the rules, campers would receive two warnings if they break the regulations and a third violation could result in jail time or a fine.
Given that there are more unhoused Portlanders than there are shelter beds and the city lacks affordable housing, the city’s rules are unreasonable, the lawsuit alleges. Service providers and people with lived experience have said it is often not safe for homeless individuals to sleep at night, and instead many sleep during the day.
Liz Starke, development director at Rose Haven, a women’s daytime center, said one of the city’s tactics to get unhoused people into shelters — telling them amid a tent sweep they need to enter one – could result in chaos.
Just last week, Starke recounted, “I was working with a lady in a wheelchair, she was elderly with no mobility, and she was swept and told to go to a shelter. When she got there, the shelter told her they couldn’t let her in without a referral, so she came to us. It doesn’t sound like the people doing sweeps were educated about our local resources.”
Even though enforcement of the camping ban hasn’t begun, Starke said the stress it places on people navigating homelessness has already manifested.
“People were immediately scared and we were seeing people’s mental health escalate with more crises,” she said. Rose Haven operates at its 150-person capacity each day, with people lined up outside the door waiting to get in, Starke said.
In anticipation of the increased demand for daytime shelter, the city worked with the county to secure $3.3 million from the voter-approved homelessness services tax in September to open or expand day centers.
Scott Kerman, director of homelessness services nonprofit Blanchet House, said the window to apply for that funding just opened Monday – a week before the enforcement is slated to start.
“I’m hopeful we’ll receive funding,” Kerman said. “However, I can’t speculate on the amount or how we might be able to use the funding.”
While many unhoused Portlanders seem to be aware of the ban and fearful of it, many don’t necessarily understand its nuances, Starke said. The city provided local nonprofits informational materials about the ban and maps showing where people will and will not be allowed to camp. However, Kerman said Blanchet House chose not to pass those out and instead will create their own materials that will be easier to understand.
“They may be useful in other locations and with other communities, but as for our meal service guests, we’llseek to design something ourselves … more visual with less text,” Kerman said.
Bowman said outreach teams have been working since June to educate unhoused Portlanders about how enforcement of the ban would work. Along with verbal communication, Bowman said the city printed and distributed more than 20,000 handouts.
Starting Monday, if a judge doesn’t halt enforcement, police will work with the city’s homelessness street coordination team to issue warnings and citations. Police will document each of them in a central records system, Bowman said.
Enforcement will narrowly focus on camps that present the highest health and safety risk, Bowman said, though he didn’t specify where those are. Unhoused Portlanders who accept offers of shelter will not be cited, he said.
Nicole Hayden reports on homelessness for The Oregonian/OregonLive. She can be reached at email@example.com.