The camping ordinance, along with a handful of other ordinances that criminalize people on Portland’s streets, has a long history of embattled saga’s between bureaucracies, the business community, people on the streets and advocates.
Like the sit-lie ordinance, the camping ordinance is more or less a tool used by the police and parks bureau and private security to minimize the impact of more than 1,600 people (after all shelters are full) from becoming too visible on Portland’s streets, specifically downtown, where tourists and business owners tend to blame their lack of sales on the homeless presence.
The camping ordinance is a tool used to protect private businesses from people sleeping on public property (trespass is used for private property) or to disband larger groups of individuals on the streets sleeping in “camps” for any number of reasons — some that are logical and others that are simply cruel.
The city of Portland has been taking on the most controversial and deadlocked issues on the homeless front, including both the sidewalk and camping ordinances over the past year. And while Street Roots appreciates their leadership, civil rights attorneys and the courts have probably forced their politics more than their will to take on civil rights.
Without these efforts, we most likely would still have a sidewalk law (It was ruled unconstitutional last year) that targets poor people. Nor would the current class-action lawsuit against the camping ordinance be such a priority in City Hall. The city is in negations with lawyers with the Oregon Law Center, which sued the city for violations to the plaintiff’s 8th Amendment protecting against cruel and unusual punishment.
For months, the city has chosen to negotiate. That was until January when the negations stalled on the new ordinance that would dictate how law enforcement would engage with people on the streets. The new guidelines have the potential to be monumental and would decriminalize car camping and allow all churches to host homeless folks in their parking lots. It would also free up public space in parks and other locations owned by the city. In short, it would make for a much more humane and logical approach to the working with folks on the streets.
Will it solve the shortfalls our community faces with the lack affordable housing units, or the gross civil rights violations that occur on the streets nightly? Will it stop the violence against women or the influx of hard drugs that lead to addiction on Portland’s streets? No, but it will go a long way in breaking through 30 years of failed policies used by city government to deal with the problem. Will it work? Only time will tell.
We hope that under the leadership of City Hall that a more progressive and tolerant approach is adopted soon. A more humane and cost effective approach to working with the homeless would be welcomed by many progressive businesses, nonprofits and others. The timing is right and the chance may not come again. We’re counting on our electives to seize the moment and to do the right thing.