Near the start of this year’s Oregon legislative session, Rep. Farrah Chaichi (D-Beaverton) introduced House Bill 3501, also known as the Right to Rest bill. Chaichi told the Mercury she introduced the bill—which seeks to ensure that people experiencing homelessness are allowed equal access to public space without harassment —because it was in line with her human-rights centered approach to legislating.
“Homelessness is one of the most pressing human rights issues that we deal with on a daily basis,” Chaichi said. She added that when homeless people have to endure law enforcement and public employees confiscating their tents and possessions, it makes the problem worse.
The bill didn't advance, but it did stir up heavy backlash, highlighting an inflection point in Oregon's response to homelessness.
According to Oregon House majority leader Julie Fahey, the 2023 Right to Rest bill failed to meet a key March deadline. Even though it had no track to passage, house leaders set up an informational public hearing for the bill, scheduled for May 4. But that hearing was cancelled after the the legislature received over 2,000 public comments opposing it, and supporters never got a chance to make their case for the bill.
The opposition was likely fueled in-part by negative news coverage and a push from divisive advocacy group, People For Portland, to get the bill killed.
"The fact this extreme legislation is even getting a hearing in Salem is Exhibit A of influence of the radical Homeless Enablers and Homeless Industrial Complex," one anti-Right to Rest tweet from People For Portland reads. Public comments rolled in from people who incorrectly believed the bill was on a path to becoming law, expressing fear of a future in which people move to Oregon en masse to camp on the streets because of policies like Right to Rest.
The backlash against Right to Rest occurred at a time when homeless people nationwide are at increased risk of assault from their housed neighbors. The same week the bill's hearing was set to take place, Jordan Neely—a man experiencing homelessness in New York City—was killed by a fellow passenger on a Manhattan subway train.
As written, HB 3501 was intended to give unhoused people permission to "use public spaces in the same manner as any other person without discrimination based on their housing status." The bill defined public space as including, but not limited to, “plazas, courtyards, parking lots, sidewalks, public transportation facilities and services, public buildings and parks.” It didn’t include private business establishments.
The bill aimed to prohibit sweeps of unhoused people who aren’t committing criminal behavior other than living outside. It also provided legal recourse to people who experience harassment or unfair treatment by law enforcement on the basis of their housing status.
“Many persons in Oregon have experienced homelessness as a result of economic hardship, a shortage of safe and affordable housing, the inability to obtain gainful employment and a disintegrating social safety net system,” the bill’s text reads. “Decriminalization of rest allows local governments to redirect resources from local law enforcement activities to activities that address the root causes of homelessness and poverty.”
But HB 3501 didn’t go anywhere, and Right to Rest advocates are in the same place today as two years ago —perhaps in an environment that's even more unsympathetic toward their cause.
Despite the bill’s recent defeat, advocates say they haven’t given up. The bill’s sponsors say they’ll keep pushing for similar legislation in the future, but are concerned the current environment has proven too hostile for Right to Rest policies to be enacted.
“There’s a lot of apprehension to have this discussion in the first place,” Chaichi said.
Why advocates support Right to Rest
HB 3501 is the latest iteration of Right to Rest bills that have been advanced in multiple states by San Francisco-based homeless advocacy group Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP). It differs from existing policy established in the landmark Martin v Boise ruling. That 2018 court case set a national legal precedent against cities enforcing anti-camping ordinances if they don’t have enough shelter beds available for their homeless population.
A version of the bill has been introduced to the Oregon legislature several times in the past. In 2021, a Right to Rest bill was introduced by Rep. Wlnsvey Campos (D-Aloha) and co-sponsored by four other Democratic legislators. In the end, the 2021 bill died in the House Committee on Judiciary, receiving a much shorter hearing than advocates wanted.
Chaichi said, given its past, she knew it would be an uphill battle to advance the bill again this year. But she and co-sponsor Rep. Khanh Pham (D-Portland) thought it was important that it receive a proper hearing in the 2023 legislature to make up for what happened two years ago.
“The community was shut out of the conversation [in 2021]. This was supposed to rectify that,” Chaichi said. “I wanted to give it the attention and dignity that it deserves.”
Homeless advocates have campaigned for a “right to rest” bill in several states, including California and Colorado. Similar bills were adopted in Rhode Island, Illinois, and Connecticut in 2012 and 2013.
“The laws that encompass the “right to rest” bill [deal with] the three top offenses people have told us they’re being criminalized for: sitting, standing and sleeping,” Paul Boden, executive director of WRAP, told the Mercury. “These laws have been used to purposefully discriminate against segments of the community that local governments have decided they want to get rid of.”
In written public testimony supporting HB 3501, a resident named Charles Hemingway made a statement on behalf of "Those Houseless."
"The unhoused are citizens too. Often the unhoused have no recourse but to be in public or urban space because they have no place else to go," Hemingway wrote. "Too frequently the unhoused are shunted away from public or urban spaces through the use of anti-camping ordinances that force the unhoused into locations out of sight and hidden from the rest of us."
Other advocates, including a woman whose brother was killed by two teenagers while he was experiencing homelessness in 2018, have spoken out in support of previous versions of this bill. But the supportive written testimony for HB 3501 was drowned out by vitriolic opposition.
Support waned as attacks mounted
HB 3501 didn’t receive much media coverage for March and much of April while it was sitting in the House Committee on Homelessness. All of that changed toward the end of April. First, when the Taxpayers Association of Oregon weighed in on April 21, bringing attention to the public hearing for a bill that would “expand the rights of homeless trespassing.”
Then, People for Portland took to Twitter and email, to encourage opposition to the bill. An April 23 People for Portland tweet called HB 3501 a proposed law that would “make tent cities permanent.” Soon after, outlets from the New York Post to Fox News covered the “right to rest” saga and the House Committee on Housing and Homelessness received more than 2,000 comments opposing the bill.
Janet Weaver from Woodburn, suggested the bill would create a "downward slide of livability in Oregon's communities" and keep families from visiting or using public parks. An opponent claiming to represent the main forum for Portland discussions on the Reddit website—the r/Portland subreddit—also wrote in with objections.
Portland-based attorney Jeff Merrick even submitted a poem about his disdain for the proposal.
“Squalor in tents is not the way, despite this bill of naïveté,” the poem, titled ‘How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways,’ begins. “Quit enabling, if you will, our children’s desire for the fentanyl pill, which drives them to steal and turn tricks in tents, and break the windows of those who pay rent.”
Many of the comments echoed the same sentiment: Oregon is currently too relaxed about visible homelessness, and this bill would only make it worse. Some commenters also wrote about the accessibility issues that sidewalk encampments can pose to people with disabilities trying to navigate the city.
The access issue was the basis of a September 2022 class action lawsuit against the city of Portland, in which plaintiffs claimed the city's lax enforcement of camping on sidewalks meant it was failing to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
But Right to Rest advocates say policies that allow or encourage law enforcement to criminalize people who appear to be homeless do nothing to address the root causes of homelessness. At most, they push the issue under the rug so other people don’t have to see it. They also say these policies only make it more difficult for people to eventually find housing.
Half of all people arrested in Portland between 2017 and 2020 were homeless, and many of those arrests were made after police received reports of non-violent, non-criminal actions, like loitering.
“Our research found that Oregon’s most populous cities and counties have 224 laws that criminalize necessary life-sustaining activities like sitting, lying, resting, or eating in public,” WRAP’s website states. “When someone has nowhere else to do these things, fines, fees, and a criminal record only further entrenches them in homelessness. Oregonians living on the street are forced to make impossible choices to go about their daily lives.”
What’s next for Right to Rest?
In the end, Fahey said the 2023 Right to Rest bill was a “significant distraction from all of the work we’re doing this legislative session” and the legislature needed to move on.
“We knew that there was probably not the political will to pass the policy, but we did think there was the political will to have the conversation,” Chaichi told the Mercury. “I guess we were wrong.”
To Boden, what happened in Oregon is concerning.
“Anytime that the people being oppressed have fought back there’s been this massive backlash from those in power,” Boden said. “It’s really a shame that the response from our state governments has been to acquiesce to backlash and not to combat it.”
But Boden said he and his team at WRAP won’t give up on this issue.
“When we talk to unhoused community members, people are desperate for protection,” Boden said. “We’re not lemmings, we’re not going to march off and jump into the sea. They’re going to have to deal with us at some point.”
Chaichi expressed a similar sentiment, saying she will keep pushing for policies that advance the human rights of all Oregonians, even if she receives backlash for it.
“The thing that people are missing the most is that this is a human issue. These are human beings,” Chaichi said. “This is a scandal. People are dying, and this policy would be so we can keep people alive while we get them into homes.”