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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

City Almost "Drops" Anti-Camping Law...Doesn't

Posted by Matt Davis on Tue, Jan 5, 2010 at 2:35 PM

The City of Portland appears to have reneged at the last minute, last night, from effectively dropping its controversial anti-camping law for homeless people who keep their camps discrete.

The city's Office of Management and Finance (OMF) pulled an item from tomorrow's agenda, late last night, that would settle a class-action lawsuit related to the camping law. The suit was brought in December 2008 by the Oregon Law Center on behalf of four homeless people who alleged they had been unfairly targeted by the law. Read more about it here.

Under the proposed settlement, a copy of which you can download here, the city would have agreed not to enforce its camping law on public property subject to a few new rules:

1.A camp may not contain more than four people after 10:00pm.
2.A camp must be out of sight and earshot or more than 50 yards away from any other camp.
3.Campers may not set up a campsite until 9:00pm.
4.A camp must be quiet after 10:00pm.
5.A camp must not cause any health or sanitation problems.
6.A camp must not draw significant complaints from neighbors.
7.A camp must be off the sidewalks and roadways and away from nighttime high volume traffic areas.
8.A camp must be packed up and removed from the site by 7:00am.

The city also agreed to stop considering sleeping in a bedroll to meet the definition of a "camp," and agreed to look into better storage of belongings for people sleeping on the street. The city agreed not to rouse non-obstructing, otherwise lawful sleepers before 7:00am. The city would also pay each of the homeless plaintiffs between $200 and $500, and $27,600 to the Oregon Law Center for its attorney's fees on the case.

But the negotiations have hit a snag, according to Laurel Butman, spokeswoman for OMF.

"The city attorney's office and the Oregon Law Center have hit a snag with some policy stuff," she tells the Mercury this afternoon. "They'll re-submit as soon as those things get ironed out."

There's no time line for the resubmission of the settlement, says Butman, although she adds, "it sounded like they were minor questions, so I'm not anticipating it will take much longer."

2008 Protest
  • 2008 Protest
The lawsuit alleged that in criminalizing camping when homeless people have no place else to go, the city of Portland had effectively criminalized homelessness. It followed a huge protest (pictured, right) by homeless individuals against the ordinance at city hall back in May 2008, when several people ended up being arrested.

"It's too bad that they pulled it from the agenda," says Patrick Nolen, spokesman for homeless advocacy nonprofit Soapbox Under the Bridge. He hopes to see it back on the agenda soon.

"While I was homeless, the unwritten rule was that as long as you were fairly discrete and didn't cause a problem and weren't in large groups, you were probably going to be okay unless somebody directly called you in," says Nolen. "This was the unwritten rule, but it could change if a police officer decided they wanted to wake you up that night. It's good to see what used to be kind of the unwritten rule become more concrete."

"As long as you're obeying this," says Nolen, "then a police officer isn't going to bug you. Whereas in the past you would have to explain to every new officer on the beat that, well, the other officers let me sleep here. It was a kind of education process."

Homeless Commissioner Nick Fish declined comment, while the Oregon Law Center did not return the Mercury's inquiries.

Update, 2:39
"We agree that we need to settle this case and that there needs to be a consistent set of rules that people outside can abide by, and not be prosecuted for life-preserving behavior," says Monica Goracke of the OLC. "The rules were not hard to agree on, and we're basically there. But the devil is in the details, and that's where we've been for a while."

Original post, 2:35:
If the camping ordinance does indeed effectively get struck off the city's books, then homeless advocates will have had a bonanza four months. Fish and Mayor Sam Adams finally saw sense and repealed the city's unconstitutional sit/lie law last September.

Fish, who will fight for reelection this spring, told the Oregonian in October that he wanted to "relax" some of the rules for people sleeping outside. The paper's editorial board responded with a reactionary tsk-tsk-ing:

"Ultimately, it would do the homeless in Portland no favor to allow tent camping to proliferate. It would only encourage a lowering of the city's standards."

The city says 1600 people continue to sleep on the streets each night.

Other homeless advocates are thrilled at the prospect of dropping the draconian law for homeless people who keep their camps discrete.

"I'd be concerned how the 'out of sight' aspect is used," says Israel Bayer, director of Street Roots. "But as long as the camping ordinance is not used more to move people on than they already are, then it's a step in the right direction."

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