A group of Portlanders with disabilities filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday, accusing the city of Portland of failing to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for allowing tents and other structures to occupy city sidewalks.
"The City has failed and continues to fail to maintain its sidewalks clear of debris and tent encampments, which is necessary to make its sidewalks readily accessible to people with mobility disabilities," reads the complaint, filed by Attorney John DiLorenzo of the law firm David Wright Tremaine.
The lawsuit demands the city clear all city sidewalks of tents—and their residents—while the litigation carries out in court.
Portland is subject to a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that prohibits cities from removing homeless people from public spaces if they cannot offer alternative shelter space. To meet that legal requirement, the lawsuit demands that the city construct shelter space to accommodate for every person swept.
Those represented in the lawsuit include Portlanders who use mobility devices to run errands and get to work, along with caregivers for people with disabilities. The plaintiffs live in neighborhoods across the city. Several plaintiffs describe having to operate wheelchairs and canes in the middle of the street to avoided blocked sidewalks. Others cited feeling threatened by unhoused people who reside in tents and other structures along city sidewalks.
The lawsuit does not include nor mention any people with disabilities who themselves live in tents or other outdoor shelters. According to Multnomah County's 2019 point-in-time count, which acts as a census for unsheltered homeless populations, 62 percent of people without shelter said they had a disability.
The lawsuit goes beyond detailing violations of the ADA to opine on city management and politics. The filing accuses city officials of inaction on homeless sweeps due to "political headwinds" which have allowed the city to take "only limited action to maintain its sidewalks clear from tent encampments and debris and, instead, prioritizes other public projects." The complaint also accuses the police of not addressing crimes that are called in by people with disabilities.
DiLorenzo has made a name for himself in Oregon by taking the government to court, often on behalf on property owners and monied businesses. DiLorenzo successfully fought Portland for misspending water and sewer funds in 2017 and, more recently, failed to overturn the city's renter relocation ordinance on behalf of irate landlords. DiLorenzo also led the lawsuit against the state for failing to maximize timber harvests, winning the plaintiff counties a $1 billion verdict. He was also the attorney behind the 2020 lawsuit which accused the state of limiting businesses' economic revenue due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Outside of the courtroom, DiLorenzo has a personal stake in sweeping homeless camps. DiLorenzo co-owns an apartment in downtown Portland and, in 2021, took it upon himself to hire a private security team to investigate criminal activity taking place at homeless encampments near his property. He used the results of that investigation to lobby City Hall to to remove the camp—and within weeks, it was swept.
This isn't the first time ADA regulations have informed the city's homeless restrictions. In 2010, then-Mayor Sam Adams proposed a policy that would limit people from sitting or lying in an eight-foot "pedestrian-use zone" on city sidewalks, to accommodate people with disabilities. The policy passed. Adams and his then-chief of staff, Tom Miller, now both work in Mayor Ted Wheeler's office.
ADA regulations are a common tool used to police homeless populations across the US (along with other marginalized communities), both through city policy and lawsuits. In 2019, several cities in southern California were sued for violating the ADA by allowing tents along city sidewalks. That lawsuit ended in several settlement agreement with the cities involved, which pledged to create additional shelter space to relocated unsheltered people living on sidewalks. In 2020, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott suggested the city of Austin use ADA violations to removed homeless people from sleeping on sidewalks.
Wheeler's office said the mayor will comment on the lawsuit following a 11 am press conference held by DiLorenzo on the complaint.