- Dirk VanderHart
- Portland police help with a campsite cleanup, on city property near the Springwater Corridor.
For the second time since 2011, the Oregon Department of Transportation has settled a lawsuit with homeless campers who claimed the department unlawfully confiscated their personal items.
Under the agreement, ODOT will pay out $60,000 and faces additional rules for how it can expel campers from its property. Those rules will have ramifications for Portland's homeless, since ODOT owns land around bridges and along the Springwater Corridor, both areas ripe for enforcement.
Despite the $60,000 in damages, the settlement (like most settlements) finds no fault. Both sides say they're pleased.
"Our reading of this is it’s a win-win," says ODOT spokesman Dave Thompson. "It carefully sets out what people's rights are."
Those rights were supposed to be hammered out already.
Back in 2011, under pressure from a suit filed by the Oregon Law Center, ODOT crafted agency rules that dictated how much notice it would give before dismantling campsites on its property. Campers were to have between 10 and 19 days' notice before a site was cleaned up, according to that settlement. And ODOT said it would store confiscated valuables for a month.
But just two years later, the Oregon Law Center sued again on behalf of five homeless Portlanders. ODOT had disregarded its own rules, the plaintiffs said in a class-action suit, giving campers in a plot of land near the I-205 bike path a mere three days before cleaning up their belongings in early October 2013. That action was contrary to what campers were told they could expect, the suit said, and resulted in some people losing much or all of their belongings when ODOT didn't properly document and store valuables. One man even died shortly after the cleanup, the suit said, suggesting his already frail health was made worse by the shock of losing his possessions.
ODOT claimed it had the authority to subvert the rules because the campsites, along Johnson Creek, were an "environmental emergency," and because police were on hand to explain the campers were violating trespassing laws. Neither of those provisions was in the first settlement agreement, however.
So now we have a second settlement [pdf], signed on Tuesday. Under the agreement, ODOT will pay $60,000 to the Oregon Law Center, money that will be used to help compensate the plaintiffs. And the agency once again has a complicated set of new rules it must follow when cleaning campsites off its many properties.
A rundown, after the jump.
•ODOT can put up no trespassing signs on any plot of land it owns. If it does so, officials only need to post notice (and distribute flyers) 24 hours in advance before coming in to clean up campsites.
•If the agency doesn't have trespassing signs on a piece of land, it needs to give campers between 10 and 19 days' notice.
•Any tent/structure that's within 30 feet of an official posting can be removed (in Multnomah County, it's often inmates doing the work). In order to escape having their things confiscated, campers have to move their belongings at least 1,501 feet away from a posting.
•Crews cleaning up homeless camps must photograph all items of value that are going to be put into storage.
•ODOT has to give 30 days' notice if it's going to try to change the rules, or create exemptions.
The rules are very similar to those the city now uses to guide its campsite cleanup efforts. That's no surprise, since those guidelines were also hammered out in a settlement over an Oregon Law Center suit.
Attorney Monica Goracke, who represented the plaintiffs, says the settlement "compensates people in a reasonable way for the items they lost." Those items included jewelry, tents, tools, clothing and important personal documents, the suit said.
Thompson, the ODOT spokesman, offered a sunnier picture.
"You know darn well what it costs to continue a lawsuit—$60,000 doesn’t go very far in court," he says. "If this clarifies the rules, then it’s money well spent, because it will keep us out of court in the future."