K. Marie

Oregon's housing woes have been great at attracting attention to the plight of renters, but that hasn’t always translated to compassion for the folks who’ve already lost their homes.

Consider: As the state was in the teeth of a widely acknowledged housing crisis last year, the city of Roseburg adopted a new “exclusion zone” policy that critics say allows officials to ban people cited for homelessness-related crimes from setting foot downtown.

And in the Central Oregon town of Prineville, leaders took steps in September to more easily exclude homeless campers and others from city parks.

Of course, similar laws—Portland’s camping ban comes to mind—have been on the books for decades. Now, with legislators in Salem promising to drill down into the housing crisis during this year’s new legislative session, advocates for the homeless see an uncommon opportunity to give those policies the boot.

“Sitting down, sleeping—these are minor fucking crimes,” says Paul Boden, executive director of the San Francisco-based Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP). “The history of local governments using and criminalizing the presence of people they don’t like and discriminatorily enforcing laws against people is as old as this country is.”

For the second time, WRAP this year has convinced Oregon legislators to consider the Oregon Right to Rest Act, a multi-pronged piece of legislation that would bolster protections for homeless Oregonians and effectively roll back local laws that can criminalize people for not having homes.

If passed as currently written, the bill would explicitly allow homeless people to rest in public spaces—including in vehicles on city streets—so long as they’re not closed off to the public in general. It would make clear that campers have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” even if they’re living outside, meaning police would need search warrants to look through tents in many instances. And if authorities breach those and other rights set forth in the bill, the act says they can be sued, or fined by the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries.

The legislation, House Bill 2215, is WRAP’s latest attempt at getting lawmakers to take up what Boden calls his organization’s “list of demands.” In 2015, a nearly identical bill died in committee after being opposed by the law enforcement lobby, the League of Oregon Cities, the Portland Business Alliance (PBA), and others.

“We believe instead we should be increasing shelters, transitional housing, and services,” the PBA’s Marion Haynes told lawmakers at the time.

But we’re a long way from 2015. Since the earlier bill was allowed to perish, Portland formally declared a housing and homelessness emergency, and state leaders have begun talking seriously about Oregon’s housing problems.

In last year’s short legislative session, lawmakers passed new, incremental protections for Portland renters. This year, under direction from House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) the legislature will consider allowing rent control in Oregon—a controversial step Kotek and others see as necessary for stemming displacement in a tight, unforgiving housing market.

“Addressing the housing crisis is a priority for House Democrats,” says Scott Moore, a spokesman for House Democratic leaders. Still, Moore can’t say that the Right to Rest Act has his bosses’ support—a necessity if the law has a prayer of making it to the Senate, let alone passing.

“It’s still early on in the session, so there are still discussions about this bill to come,” Moore says.

Those discussions are playing out as Portland is on the verge of getting a firmer grasp on how dire its homelessness issues are. On February 22, officials are slated to begin the city’s biennial point-in-time homeless count. Used throughout the country, these counts are an imperfect means of estimating the severity of homelessness. Nonetheless, they are the best measure that exists, and 2015’s point-in-time count found nearly 2,000 people living without shelter in Multnomah County.

Given the Portland region’s recent focus on homelessness—which has brought hundreds of new shelter beds, stepped up placements in affordable housing, and more assistance to renters in danger of being tossed on the streets—you might expect the city to be better off. Local leaders certainly did. In 2015, the homelessness task force A Home for Everyone crafted a plan for cutting homelessness in half in Portland by doing the very things elected officials have carried out.

Despite those efforts, many people suspect homelessness has increased.

“We can expand capacity, but the housing market right now presents an enormous challenge for our ability to actually see that... lead to an actual decrease in point-in-time homelessness,” Marc Jolin, director of the county’s Joint Office of Homeless Services, told city and county officials in a briefing on February 14. “Right now we’re seeing a lot of new people in our systems.”

In other words, the steps the PBA argued for in 2015 have been carried out, and it’s possible there are more people living on the streets.

Which isn’t to say the Right to Rest Act will fix the homelessness crisis. Supporters say it’s a way to ensure people aren’t criminalized merely for living in difficult circumstances. To the extent that it helps anyone escape homelessness, it might be by easing the fines or court dates hanging over their heads.

But the law faces skepticism, too—and not only from the usual suspects. Some homeless advocates the Mercury spoke with expressed concern that some parts of the bill—for instance, how it defines “rest” and “public space”—could lead to difficult legal questions.

Meanwhile, HB 2215 has the support of the ACLU of Oregon. The Bureau of Labor and Industries, which would have new enforcement duties under the legislation, says it’s neutral on the law.

One of the bill’s chief sponsors, state Rep. Carla Piluso (D-Gresham), brings an interesting history to her support. Over her career as a Gresham police officer and police chief, she often dealt with homeless people living along the Springwater Corridor.

“You bet I made those arrests,” says Piluso, referring to times when someone was brandishing a weapon or there’d been an assault. But she adds that the idea of people’s fundamental right to live was driven home for her recently in a presentation from homeless advocates.

“It just reinforced that some people make a choice to live outside... and should have every right to do so as long as they’re not really breaking laws or causing grief to others,” she tells the Mercury.

Whether or not other lawmakers agree remains to be seen. HB 2215 is currently before the House Judiciary Committee, with no hearing date set. Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D-Portland) is the lone sponsor of the bill to sit on that committee, and says he’ll push its chair, retired Portland police Lt. Jeff Barker, to give the bill consideration.

“I think it’s tragic to have people sleeping on the street,” says Greenlick, whose district office sits in Old Town. “On the other hand, I don’t think you should be arresting them when they sleep in the street. The problem is that they’re homeless, not that they’re sleeping on the street.”