Photo by Dirk VanderHart

EARLIER THIS YEAR, Norman Wicks Sr. and Norman Wicks Jr. looked on from a rutted dirt road in Linnton as their best efforts were neatly killed.

The father-son pair who once convinced a Multnomah County judge to overturn Portland's camping ban had stowed their old motor home—stuffed with tasteful nudes and a knockoff "Mona Lisa," their golden retrievers, and the rest of their worldly possessions—in the shadows of the chemical silos that line the Willamette. And they were incensed to hear in media reports that, suddenly, the ban they'd once seemingly beaten is stronger than ever.

In early February, Multnomah County Circuit Judge Stephen Bushong slapped down a challenge to the constitutionality of a Portland ordinance that outlaws camping ["'We Must Do Better Than That,'" News, Feb 11]. While the judge warned that arresting and citing homeless campers is no kind of sensible policy, the opinion was a blow to public defenders who'd hoped to dismantle the law—and a boon to prosecutors who use it. His ruling effectively erased a contrary opinion the Wickses had won 15 years earlier, attorneys say.

The Wickses are not perfect. They don't claim to be. A 2000 column in the Oregonian about their repeated clashes with cops listed a series of past convictions against Norman Wicks Sr., including felonies like burglary and theft.

But those misdeeds were years in the past by the time the Wickses took on the city's camping ban in 2000. And they were beside the point. The case involved a fundamental question of whether it was legal to arrest and cite homeless people for existing, as the city has done since 1981. In September 2000, former Multnomah County Judge Stephen Gallagher agreed with the Wickses, ruling that it was not.

Even at the time, the opinion didn't have much influence. The city basically ignored it, noting that other local judges had ruled differently and that a higher court never had a say. But until Bushong's recent ruling, the Gallagher decision was theoretically a weapon for taking on the city's policy.

The Wickses eventually moved off to California. But they were back in Portland—out on that rutted road with no one to bother them—on a rainy afternoon late last month, when the Mercury stopped to discuss the past 15 years with Wicks Sr., now in his seventies.

MERCURY: Let's start with your court case.

NORMAN WICKS SR.: [In 1995,] we were living on NW 25th, in a nice private house. When they gentrified it, we were actually kicked out. Right on the street. I was only paying part of the rent and the housing authority paid the rest. That's the only reason we were able to live there.

Because we were kicked right on the street, our lives took a turn. Being out on the street is something that had never happened to me before.

So did you move into a motorhome like this?

No, into a truck. We built a camper in the back of a truck, and we owned a computer business—taking them apart and recycling the materials. We did tons and tons and tons of computers. We would send the circuit boards to gold smelters in Arizona. We weren't doing too badly as homeless people.

The thing with the camping ordinance was, we felt like people should be able to live however they can. This wasn't a choice we made. But it is now. We choose to be living the way we are now.

How many times were you ticketed while living in that camper?

Hundreds of times. Literally. At one point I had all the tickets plastered on the outside of my vehicle. And all the students from [Benson High School, near where it was parked] were coming by daily saying, "Oh, he's got new tickets!"

How did you end up challenging the camping ordinance?

It was just one of many tickets we got. I finally went to Legal Aid [Services of Oregon] who said they would represent us. We went through the first round in the courts, and then the next round, and then the next round, which was challenging the constitutionality of the ordinance. After reading and re-reading the camping ordinance and the decision by Judge Gallagher, I realized there's more at play here than just two people camping. Camping for some people is not a choice they make.

The Gallagher ruling came down in 2000. What happened after that?

We became targeted. Got more tickets for camping—even after that. Tickets for everything under the sun, even if I didn't do it. So we just got up and left [in 2005].

So there wasn't an expectation when you left Portland that this had been solved?

We knew that it wasn't. I'm not surprised to see that the camping ordinance is back again in full swing. Here's the thing about that: It shows a lack of progressive thinking on the part of the city fathers and the mayor. What they're doing, in essence, is criminalizing being poor. The war on poverty has become a war on the impoverished.

I don't want people to think that I'm not sympathetic toward some of these conditions. There are conditions that the city has to face—one of them being the unclean, unkempt areas where people are camping. It's an eyesore. And then there's the defecation and the urination and the drunkenness. This is indicative of people who have no other choice in life.

What's needed in my view is some progressive kind of activity on the part of the city. They're never going to get rid of homelessness. At some point in time, if they don't let up on what they're doing to the homeless, we're gonna have another Ferguson, Missouri, here in this city. It will lead to that.

So what's the answer?

The problem needs to be taken out of the hands of the City of Portland, and the community needs to be asked to take over. More specifically, churches need to be asked to take over. Churches have more of a heart for the situation.

The city needs to pay the churches to take over the homeless problem. Each church in Portland that wants to be of assistance, they should be allowed to sponsor a number of individuals they could possibly help. Depending on how many they're capable of caring for, [they could also] ask the community to pitch in. Ask the community to donate to help a number of homeless people who they want to sponsor.

If [homeless people] are willing to participate in a program to help them overcome homelessness, then the city should dispense with the fines and putting them in jail. They're not going to be getting any money out of these people! [The city] is just going to keep jailing them and jailing them and the taxpayers are going to pay for it, anyway. What they're doing now is not working.

I think most people agree with that. Even the judge who recently upheld the ordinance.

And may I say that he is completely wrong as far as the constitutionality of the camping ordinance? In other cities around the country, and particularly in California, judges all over the state have ruled that camping ordinances are unconstitutional and they've done away with them.

There are other cities where they've been upheld, though.

Right. It's a mixed bag of tricks. But I think courts are getting away from prosecuting homeless people because they don't see any point in it. It's not gonna help them not be homeless. It's just going to reinforce the idea that "they're against me." Demonizing them is not the way to go, because it reinforces what they already believe. You gotta give them hope.

You don't live in Portland anymore, right?

We live in California. We only came here for, uh, specific purposes, and my transmission went out on my motorhome. It cost $1,200 to have it rebuilt and then the snow kept us from going back over the mountains. We'll be leaving March 3.

In the meantime, I went around videotaping homeless camps. Most people on these streets were at one time part of the community here. I ask them, isn't this harsh to be out on the street? They tell me about rat problems. When you see after 10 years that nothing's changed, that's bad. They can't come up with any new ideas?

What are you trying to achieve with those videos?

Get compassion from people. Most of the people who are against homeless people surviving are people who can't relate. They've never been homeless. Until it hits their family, they have no idea.