The inevitable lawsuit over Mayor Charlie Hales' new homeless camping rules landed today, and it's coming from all the folks you expected—and more!
In a suit filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court, the Portland Business Alliance, Overlook Neighborhood Association, Central Eastside Industrial Council, and others have asked a judge to end to Hales' new policies, which allow campers to erect tents overnight on some "remnant" parcels, sleep overnight on the sidewalk in small groups, and live in organized camps attached to nonprofit organizations (none of which have sprung up under the policy).
In a city with thousands more homeless people than there are corresponding social services resources, those groups—calling themselves "Safe and Livable Portland" and hiring a PR outfit to shine up their effort—say Hales approach is "misguided" and "irrational." They'd like a judge to issue an injunction.
"Although the Mayor purported to base his Camping Policy on a shortage of affordable housing in the City," the suit says, "the policy is an irrational response that does nothing to create affordable housing and runs contrary to the recommendations of civic groups on how to alleviate the City’s housing affordability issues."
The filing argues Hales has run afoul of a state law that reads: "Campgrounds established for providing transitional housing accommodations shall not be allowed on more than two parcels in a municipality." And the business groups say that the mayor's exceeded the authority extended to him by the housing state of emergency City Council enacted last year, and that he can't enact the rules by himself. (Even if that last bit is true, Hales could find a majority of city commissioners to go with him. Both Amanda Fritz and Steve Novick recently told the Mercury they agree with the move.)
It's hard to overstate the importance this suit could have as Portland tries to find its way on homelessness. The policies Hales enacted in February, for many homeless advocates, represented a nuanced response in a city that's historically criminalized and pushed around homeless people, while offering no alternative.
Hales and his chief of staff, Josh Alpert, instead have said that a better approach is to allow limited camping until the city builds enough housing and establishes enough shelter to give people sleeping on the streets an option. As I've argued, that's a more rational stance than City Hall's taken on this issue in decades—but it hasn't always been apparent in the last two months that Hales has been cracking down in ways his office said it would, even as it relaxed the camping rules.
Most of the groups who filed the lawsuit today—beyond those listed above, they include the food cart pod Cartlandia, the Building Owners and Managers Association of Oregon, the Pearl District Neighborhood Association, and the PBA-affiliated Clean and Safe District—have clashed publicly lately with the city on homelessness.
The PBA seems to be in a constant rhetorical battle with the mayor's office over the issue, and it's partner organization Clean and Safe was recently shamed into removing a downtown billboard urging people not to give to panhandlers. The Central Eastside Industrial Council, made up of businesses in a neighborhood with a lot of camping activity, is currently trying to stop the city from moving the well-liked homeless rest area Right 2 Dream Too into its midst. Cartlandia, on SE 82nd, has been affected by problematic activity that's increased on the Springwater Corridor. The Overlook Neighborhood Association is furious about the Hazelnut Grove camp on North Greeley, and voted unanimously just last night to join in on the lawsuit, according to board member Chris Trejbal (who's also the
interim research and advocacy director at the City Club of Portland).
"We don't see that solution coming out of City Hall," Trejbal told me. "What we do see is the city allowing camping to occur without any sort of regulation and in places that are unsafe and unhealthy... I think the filing suggests we want the city to come up with a place for people to go."
In fact, there is movement occurring on homelessness well beyond Hales' policy change. Anyone who says it's City Hall's only response to the problem is lying or not paying attention. Hundreds of shelter beds have sprung up since the housing emergency was declared, and the city's poured millions into a new plan aimed at drastically reducing homelessness (many details here). The Portland Housing Bureau, which is largely responsible for creating affordable housing, will likely see a massive increase in its budget this year.
That's not to say the city's response has been perfect in the slightest—or even that it will work. High-profile incidents like a recent shooting and a fire at a homeless camp earlier this month are easy things for naysayers to seize on as proof the city's going downhill.
The mayor's office declined comment, saying it doesn't talk about pending litigation.