Camping lawsuit talks stall as new rules hang in the balance

New guidelines for homeless campsites could land before council in the coming weeks

By Amanda Waldroupe
Contributing Writer

As of late January, the settlement negotiations to a year-old class-action lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Portland’s camping ordinance have stalled, with litigation proceeding.

“I had very much hoped that the settlement would be in place right now, given that it’s winter and it’s cold and people are outside and it’s miserable,’ says Monica Goracke with the Oregon Law Center, which filed the case in December 2008 on behalf of seven plaintiffs. “We and the city attorney’s office worked very hard to come up with what we feel is a reasonable settlement, and I still hope that we can reach agreement. But we are fully prepared to litigate this case if necessary.”

But the city attorney in charge of that case and City Commissioner Nick Fish say that negotiations to end the lawsuit are not dead, and new guidelines dictating permissible camping should become city policy in two weeks. Fish said that he is working with Dan Saltzman, the commissioner in charge of the Portland Police Bureau, on setting new camping guidelines

“I think it is quite likely that these guidelines will be the basis of a settlement to the federal lawsuit,” Fish says.

“The plan is to test drive them first,” Fish says. “It is my hope they will provide a framework for settling the lawsuit.”

Camps that are four people or smaller, out of earshot and sight of other camps or 50 yards away, and is not loud or causing health and sanitation problems would be allowed on public property between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. The police also could not, under the proposed guidelines, enforce the anti-camping ordinance against people sleeping in their cars.

The guidelines would be a significant shift away from current policy, which make it illegal for any person to camp on public property. Advocates say Portland’s current anti-camping ordinance makes it difficult, if not impossible, for homeless individuals to get a good night’s sleep, which in turn effects their health and ability to take the steps to find housing.

That effect on homeless individuals makes the ordinance the subject of a class-action lawsuit from the Oregon Law Center, challenging the constitutionality of the ordinance on the basis that it violates the 8th Amendment and cruelly and unusually punishes homeless people.

For the last six months, the City and the Oregon Law Center have been attempting to settle the case out of court. Commissioner Fish convened a task force, led by the Portland Housing Bureau’s Ending Homelessness Program Manager Sally Erickson, to create policy recommendations that would allow people without access to shelter to camp outside, get a good night’s sleep, and escape the weather. Street Roots board member and vendor, Leo Rhodes, also sat on the committee. Ironically, Rhodes received two park exclusions for camping during the month of January — which he is appealing.

The recommendations from the Housing Bureau became the basis of conversations to settle the lawsuit. But parallel to settling the lawsuit, the policy conversations still took place — the idea being, Fish says, that the way Portland allows homeless people to camp would change one way or the other.

“I don’t think not having a settlement means we can’t talk about public policy issues around camping,” says Marc Jolin, the executive director of the outreach agency JOIN. “I think it would be disappointing if they couldn’t reach a settlement.”

“There’s been no collapse of a settlement process,” Fish says.

Fish is currently working with City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees the Police Bureau, to finalize the guidelines. Saying that there is “broad agreement on most points,” Fish stated in an interview that the guidelines would most likely be ready to become policy in the next two weeks.

But the new guidelines would not become permanent policy. Fish says that there isn’t the political support inside City Hall to do that. Instead, for the next six months the new guidelines will be considered a “test drive” to see if they work.

“The reality is that there are some low-impact camps going on now that might be bearable,” says David Woboril, an assistant city attorney representing the city in the lawsuit against the camping ordinance. “It has to be managed properly.”

A key sticking point in the settlement negotiations came from defining the exact size of a camp. The guidelines currently say camps no larger than four people will be permissible. But, Woboril asks, does that mean tent capacity for four people, or the actual number of people?

Another sticking point in the negotiations surrounded where people would be allowed to camp. The agreement currently says that the ordinance would not be enforced against people camping on public property that is currently open to the public.

“There won’t be much capacity,” Woboril says, because that would exclude areas underneath bridges and privately owned land where people commonly sleep.

The obvious solution would be to create a list of places where people could sleep. The fear is that would effectively create green zones. (See “Making a pitch for tents,” Street Roots blog, July 11, 2008.)

“I haven’t resolved that question,” Fish says. “I can see both sides.”

The settlement stalling comes at the same time that a large camp gathered underneath the Burnside Bridge until a police sweep the night of Jan. 22. At a Feb. 1 meeting of the Sharing Public Sidewalks Advisory Committee, an advisory group to City Commissioner Amanda Fritz on homeless and livability issues, Central Precinct Officer Dave Famous said that 50 to 100 people had been camping underneath the bridge since November.

Along with the increasing numbers of people came drug use, violence, trash, weapons, disorderly conduct, and other behaviors that provoked 313 calls to the police between Nov. 20 and Jan 20.

Ibrahim Mubarek, a homeless advocate who was present during the sweep, says that the perception that camps naturally cause drug activity and violence is wrong.

“People are going under the bridges to get out of the rain. They’re not going out there to have a big drug party,” he says.

Lio Alaalatoa, a JOIN outreach worker who does outreach in the downtown area, says that it is nearly impossible for him to do his job when camps are that large. “There’s no hope of any private talking,” he says.

Alaalatoa says that camps as large as the one underneath the Burnside Bridge are bound to congregate if police continually sweep small camps from different areas. “That’s the end result you cannot avoid,” he says.

And once camps are swept, the relationships he builds with the individuals staying in those camps are frayed, as well as the progress being made towards getting that person housing or services.

“It will take me a while to find where they move. They’ll just disappear for a while. They’ll be so angry (that) they won’t contact me,” Alaalatoa says.

And, he says, in large camps, “there is hardly any sleeping,” contrary to the smaller camps of one or two individuals that he finds in other areas.

“You go there by nine, they’re asleep. No one bothers them. They’re up by four or five,” Alaalatoa says.

Megan Doern, the public affairs manager of the Portland Business Alliance, points to the camp that was underneath the Burnside Bridge as reason to not have the sort of camping guidelines the city is now pursuing.

“I don’t think that the situation under the Burnside Bridge says very much about the policy conversations around camping,” Jolin says. “(It doesn’t) represent what anybody is trying to work towards.”

Jolin also adds that he thinks if small camps were allowed, and people were able to sleep through the night without worrying about being swept by the police, that large camps would not be as common as they are currently.

When asked whether she agreed, and whether she thought smaller camps would have a different impact than large camps, Doern would not comment.

In late December, it looked all but certain that the city would settle with the Oregon Law Center. An ordinance that became public on Dec. 16 and would have been heard during the City Council’s Jan. 6 meeting would have paid $30,000 to the plaintiffs of the case, as well as attorney’s fees to the Oregon Law Center.

But an administrative error, in part, scuttled the ordinance and the settlement. At the same time that the ordinance became public, so did the draft of the document detailing the settlement, as well as the new camping guidelines. Because the settlement was not finalized, the document was taken offline. The ordinance was also taken off the Council agenda once the settlement negotiations stalled over the size and locations of camps.

A letter from the Portland Business Alliance dated Dec. 18 — two days after the settlement document became public — was sent to Fish, Mayor Sam Adams and the rest of the City Council, explicitly referencing the settlement negotiations taking place and asking the commissioners to not support them.

“We do not support a negotiated settlement that diminishes the city’s authority to manage its public spaces,” the letter states.

Fish says that he has not responded to the letter.

Laurel Butman, the public information officer for the city’s Office of Management and Finance, which encompasses the Office of Risk Management, says that the content of settlement documents are not always posted online along with the ordinance.

“What we usually do is get the ordinance passed so that we can go ahead and settle,” Butman says. “Then the details of the settlement will get settled out after that.”

Fish says it was an error on the Office of Risk Management’s part to post the settlement document online.

“We had no settlement,” Fish says. “It was unfortunate that happened. It raised expectations.”

But Butman says it was not the Office of Risk Management’s call to post the document online. “The City Attorney’s office asked us to post it up, and we did,” she says.

Fish, Woboril and Doern all say that the PBA’s letter was not written to influence the settlement negotiations. “It didn’t work that way at all,” Woboril says.

Fish and Doern both say that the PBA knew about the work being done to create new camping guidelines well before the document became public.

“There were different comments and different things were going around for a few weeks,” Doern says. “I don’t think it was in reaction to whatever was posted on the 16th.”

Because the city was pursuing changing policy in addition to settling the lawsuit, Fish says, the conversations happening around creating the new guidelines were “not strictly confidential.”

In addition to the new guidelines around the physical camps themselves, the city will also pursue obtaining spaces for homeless individuals to store their belongings. Fish says he is working with City Commissioner Randy Leonard to “fast-track” more public toilets as well.

“It occurs to me that the lawsuit may be being pursued to get the city’s attention on some other issues,” Woboril says.

“It is my hope that all of the stakeholders including the PBA and the police look for alternatives to the status quo when it comes to camping,” Jolin says.

8 responses to “Camping lawsuit talks stall as new rules hang in the balance

  1. Steven J. Entwisle

    If I were the mayor, I would recommend that every neighborhood association allocate and designate a possible open space in their own neighborhood to allow a safe and quiet place to sleep and rest. A good neighbor agreement will be signed by all involved in the process and that reasonable measures be instituted…..

  2. Hard Working Citizen

    StreetRoots enables individuals with addictions. Those that sell those papers should be required to take drug tests.

  3. It depends on your perspective hard working citizen. We have been working with people day in and day out for 10-years, both individuals w/addictions and those in recovery.

    Street Roots has openly worked w/people dealing w/addictions since our inception and will continue to do so. We believe by giving people a healthy environment to engage w/both the newspaper, the larger public and access to resources through the Rose City Resource Guide that we can meet people where they’re at, and offer them positive reinforcement to better their lives.

    We also know, that if an individual w/an addiction is selling SR is making an honest effort and not breaking the law to gain access to his or her fix. Drugs on Portland’s streets are way more complex than the junkie, and until the War of Drugs changes direction, we will continue to work w/people in this manner.


    Israel Bayer

  4. Pingback: Homeless Still Suffer Without Right to Cover Themselves in Rain; City Council Still Dragging It Out « Dignity Advocate

  5. Pingback: Camping ordinance: Spinning our wheels over and over « For those who can’t afford free speech

  6. Pingback: Happy (legal) campers— Eugene, Oregon « For those who can’t afford free speech

  7. I have read some posts and i am going to add this blog to my RSS feed reader.

  8. Pingback: Camp Pioneer emerges, to be swept tomorrow… | For those who can’t afford free speech

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