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Monday, August 20, 2012

Mayor Sam Adams Addresses Camping Lawsuit Settlement

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Mon, Aug 20, 2012 at 5:23 PM

Mayor Sam Adams' office just sent out a release addressing an important, if quietly placed, item on this week's Portland City Council agenda: a long-awaited settlement in a nearly four-year-old lawsuit challenging the city's rules against camping, structures, and park exclusions.

I shared my thoughts about the settlement late Friday, after reading through the city documents posted along with the council agenda. The deal doesn't legalize small-scale camping, like some might have hoped. Rather, it gives money to rent assistance programs and requires the police to follow stricter protocols for preserving whatever property is confiscated after campsites are cleared.

Adams' office notes that a lot of what the settlement says will be spelled out in policy has been informally in place over the past few years. It also highlights one of the hallmarks of Adams' tenure as the city's budget maestro: Millions in new funding, even amid tight finances, for safety net programs.

The settlement agreement acknowledges and formalizes work the City has done over the last three years that improves and makes more consistent the way it enforces these ordinances. The City has agreed to pay a total of $3,200 in damages to the six plaintiffs and three other individuals who brought claims at the same time. In lieu of paying attorney fees, the City will make $37,000 available for its Rent Assistance program, which helps people experiencing homelessness afford permanent housing. The plaintiffs have agreed to dismiss the lawsuit pending in federal court.

“Our work to prevent and end homelessness is ongoing. This agreement is a step forward to improve relations between individuals experiencing homelessness and officers enforcing city laws,” said Mayor Sam Adams.

It's still a little disappointing that there wasn't some way to also make more formal what's been a quiet policy in parts of town—under bridges and overpasses and along highways—where civil, no-trouble campsites are very often tolerated by police. Without that, there's still some leeway for homeless Portlanders to find themselves unjustly targeted.

But, also like I wrote last week, there's a glimmer of hope in that a judge is looking in on this for the next three years. If the bureau isn't training its cops to follow the terms of this deal—if civil rights violations still crop up, then maybe this won't be the last word.

Adams' office's full statement is after the cut.

The City of Portland and plaintiffs Marlin Anderson, Jerry Baker, Mary Bailey, Matthew Chase, Jack Golden, and Leo Rhodes have reached a settlement agreement in Anderson et al. v. City of Portland et al. The case, pending in federal court since 2008, was filed to challenge the constitutionality of the City’s enforcement of its ordinances against camping and erecting temporary structures against people experiencing homelessness. The plaintiffs were represented by the Oregon Law Center.

The settlement agreement acknowledges and formalizes work the City has done over the last three years that improves and makes more consistent the way it enforces these ordinances. The City has agreed to pay a total of $3,200 in damages to the six plaintiffs and three other individuals who brought claims at the same time. In lieu of paying attorney fees, the City will make $37,000 available for its Rent Assistance program, which helps people experiencing homelessness afford permanent housing. The plaintiffs have agreed to dismiss the lawsuit pending in federal court.

“Our work to prevent and end homelessness is ongoing. This agreement is a step forward to improve relations between individuals experiencing homelessness and officers enforcing city laws,” said Mayor Sam Adams.

The issue of homelessness in Portland is a concern shared by the plaintiffs and the City. The City of Portland has invested significant resources to help prevent and end homelessness, including affordable housing, rental assistance, and other social services. At the same time, high unemployment, foreclosures, a tight rental market, domestic violence, and a lack of affordable medical care are causing a steady increase in homelessness in Portland. According to the most recent Street Count conducted by Portland and Multnomah County, over 2,700 people were sleeping outside or in emergency shelters on the night of January 26, 2011. If a broader definition were used, including people who stay temporarily in other households, the true homeless count would be over 15,000 people.

Under the agreement, Portland Police Officers will now provide additional notice to individuals before citing them for camping or removing campers’ belongings from public property. Officers will also follow more specific procedures to ensure that campers can get their belongings back when removed.

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