Attorneys working on behalf of Portland's homeless plan to file a federal class action lawsuit against the city of Portland's controversial anti-camping ordinance tomorrow.
The suit, prepared by the Oregon Law Center in Portland, challenges the constitutionality of the anti-camping ordinance—alleging that in enforcing the ordinance against people who have nowhere else to sleep than outside, the City has effectively chosen to criminalize the homeless.
"Between the coming winter and the economic crisis, more people are going to be homeless, and they shouldn't be criminalized for it," says Monica Goracke of the Oregon Law Center.
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The lawsuit follows, but is not directly or legally connected to, a huge protest by homeless individuals against the ordinance at city hall back in May, when several people ended up being arrested. Read more about it in the Mercury's blog archives, or let Amy Ruiz's photos remind you:
Instead, the suit is filed by plaintiffs Marlin Anderson, Mary Bailey, Matthew Chase, and Jack Golden, who are all living on the street, homeless, because they are poor. The suit is filed on their behalf, and on behalf of individuals similarly situated.
The Law center notified the city of its plan to challenge the anti-camping ordinance a year ago, and while it says it is pleased that the city has made several attempts to improve conditions for the homeless, including opening temporary shelters and warming centers, the city has not been willing to reconsider its enforcement of laws prohibiting homeless people from sleeping on public property. In fact, the City recently changed its policies, to allow police to enforce the ordinance without 24 hours' notice (see Amanda Waldroupe's story in November 28 issue of Street Roots).
"Sleeping has been recognized by multiple courts...as a life-sustaining act that is fundamental to human existence," reads the suit. "Punishing homeless people for sleeping outside is placing the burden of the lack of sufficient housing squarely on the shoulders of those who can do the least to remedy this problem."
"While the City's efforts under the Ten Year Plan to end homelessness are laudable, there is a serious inconsistency between these efforts and the actual on-the-ground policies dealing with the well over one thousand people who must sleep outside on any given night," the suit continues.
The suit seeks relief under the eighth and fourteenth amendments of the US constitution, protecting the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, the right to travel and freedom of movement, the right for equal protection, and the right to personal liberty. It wants the city's anti-camping and unlawful structures ordinances suspended, and for damages to be decided at trial.
You can download and read a scanned copy of the entire lawsuit here.
"The city is trying to respond to homelessness in Portland in a way that is unfortunately inadequate," says Goracke. "At the same they want to have it both ways and have the right to cite people under this ordinance."
"As long as the law is on the books, the potential for and the reality of abuse of homeless people is occurring," she says. "My impression is that the city is willing to negotiate but that they see this as a difficult issue with no easy solution."
"We are asking for our day in court," Goracke concludes.
City Attorney Linda Meng is yet to return a call for comment.
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