Camping it Up 

City's Anti-Camping Ordinance Faces Class-Action Lawsuit

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ATTORNEYS WORKING ON BEHALF of Portland's homeless have filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the City of Portland's controversial anti-camping ordinance.

The suit, filed last Friday, December 12, and prepared by the Oregon Law Center (OLC) in Portland, challenges the constitutionality of the anti-camping ordinance—alleging that in enforcing the ordinance against people who have nowhere else to sleep than outside, the city has effectively criminalized homelessness.

"Between the coming winter and the economic crisis, more people are going to be homeless, and they shouldn't be criminalized for it," says Monica Goracke of the OLC.

The lawsuit follows—but is not directly or legally connected to—a huge protest by homeless individuals against the ordinance at city hall back in May, when several people ended up being arrested ["Unhappy Campers," News, May 8].

Instead, the suit is filed by four homeless plaintiffs—Marlin Anderson, Mary Bailey, Matthew Chase, and Jack Golden—and on behalf of individuals similarly situated.

The OLC notified the city of its plan to challenge the anti-camping ordinance a year ago, and while it says it is pleased that the city has made several attempts to improve conditions for the homeless, including opening temporary shelters and warming centers, the city has not been willing to reconsider its enforcement of laws prohibiting homeless people from sleeping on public property. In fact, the city recently changed its policies to allow police to enforce the ordinance without 24 hours' notice.

"Sleeping has been recognized by multiple courts... as a life-sustaining act that is fundamental to human existence," reads the suit. "Punishing homeless people for sleeping outside is placing the burden of the lack of sufficient housing squarely on the shoulders of those who can do the least to remedy this problem.

"While the city's efforts under the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness are laudable, there is a serious inconsistency between these efforts and the actual on-the-ground policies dealing with the well over 1,000 people who must sleep outside on any given night," the suit continues.

The suit seeks relief under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the US Constitution, protecting the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, the right to travel and freedom of movement, the right for equal protection, and the right to personal liberty. The suit seeks to have the city's anti-camping and unlawful structures ordinances suspended, and for damages to be decided at trial.

"The city is trying to respond to homelessness in Portland in a way that is unfortunately inadequate," says Goracke. "At the same time they want to have it both ways, and have the right to cite people under this ordinance.

"As long as the law is on the books, the potential for and the reality of abuse of homeless people is occurring," she continues. "My impression is that the city is willing to negotiate but that they see this as a difficult issue with no easy solution.

"We are asking for our day in court," Goracke concludes.

City Attorney Linda Meng did not return a call for comment. Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the city's homeless services, told the Mercury on Monday he has been told by Meng's office to not comment on the lawsuit.

Fish has made considerable efforts to improve conditions for the homeless in Portland since he took office in June, including surveying their health to determine vulnerability ["Death's Door Key," News, Oct 30] and working with Multnomah County to allocate $300,000 to fund two new warming centers ["Heating the Homeless," News, Nov 13]. Fish's Bureau of Housing and Community Development says the city's homeless shelters all had available space on Monday night, December 15, and that they were working on a night-by-night basis to ensure adequate capacity through Christmas.

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