Plaintiff in camping lawsuit puts award toward homeless campers

By Joanne Zuhl, Staff Writer

Leo Rhodes, one of nine plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the city over homeless camping, says he will take his small payment from the settlement and give it to, well, other controversial homeless campers.

Rhodes was unhappy with the recent settlement, which presents new guidelines for police but falls short of reversing the city’s anti-camping ordinances, because, he says, it doesn’t address the larger problem of people who are homeless having no place to go.

“All my money is going toward Right 2 Dream Too,” Rhodes says, referring to the rest site for people experiencing homelessness at the corner of Northwest Fourth Avenue and Burnside. “Because this is giving them a place to go — some stability and some sanity. Where they can have a safety zone.”

It’s not a lot of money, a few hundred dollars each under the terms of the settlement finalized earlier this month.

The plaintiffs — all homeless men and women at the time — sued the city for property damage and civil rights violations by the Portland Police Bureau. They were represented by the Oregon Law Center. The monetary terms are inconsequential: The city has agreed to pay $3,200 in damages among the nine plaintiffs. In lieu of attorney fees, the city will pay $37,000 to the Portland Housing Bureau to fund rental assistance programs.

The significant impact of the settlement comes in the non-monetary terms, which expands the definition of an established camp, extending certain protections to the property and people in sleeping bags or sleeping outdoors. That includes longer advanced warnings to vacate an area and documentation of personal belongings by the police.

Monica Goracke, the attorney with the center who worked on the case, says that while there is some progress made with the settlement, the changes in police behavior and interaction with people actually have been occurring over the life of the lawsuit.

“As we worked on the case over the past four years, the city realized it needed to change some aspects of how they were enforcing this ordinance. The change happened, I think in part, because of the lawsuit. Instead of enforcing without warning, they could maintain better relationship with people on the streets in ways that didn’t lead to people getting citations and fines that they could never pay that keep them in homelessness longer.”

Mayor Sam Adams said in a prepared statement that the city’s work to prevent and end homelessness is ongoing.

“This agreement is a step forward to improve relations between individuals experiencing homelessness and officers enforcing the law,” he said.

Goracke said that when the case was filed, she heard many more complaints from people saying police had taken their property without warning and given them citations for erecting a structure on the sidewalk. “I haven’t heard complaints like that in a while.”

Rhodes, who was homeless for many years before getting housing this year, said the biggest issue for him is that the settlement still leaves no place for people to go if they’re sleeping outdoors.

“They’re finding places to go out of people’s comfort zones, and yet they’re still being pushed out and still not given a place to go,” he said. “That’s why it was so hard for me to go with this.”

Right 2 Dream Too, however, has existed as a peaceful overnight site for the homeless for nearly a year. The city has been fining the owners of the property, which have a one-year lease with Right 2 Dream Too, for months over code violations. Rhodes was involved in the creation of Right 2 Dream Too, and is also a board member and vendor with Street Roots.

“There are people who are surviving living in a tent, and yet this (the anti-camping ordinance) is stopping them. It’s really, really hard,” Rhodes said.

“There’s a long way to go,” Goracke conceded. “This settlement marks an improvement in the city’s treatment of homeless people, but the reality is that there are still a lot of people out there, and the fact that they are cited for sleeping outside is still a reality. The city needs to keep improving its policies. Hopefully, one day, there won’t be criminal penalties for behavior that is life-sustaining.”

More than 2,700 people were sleeping in shelters or on the street in the city/county one-night count in 2011. The city and Multnomah County estimate that the true number of homeless people, including those sleeping outside, in shelters or doubled up in someone else’s home, is about 15,000 people.

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