The Portland City Council approved a class-action settlement over disability access Wednesday, May 31. While city leaders championed the lawsuit and settlement, some say the agreement will actually do little to bring the city into compliance with federal laws.

The settlement was approved the same day the council considered a new daytime camping ban ordinance. Both actions aim to prohibit unhoused people from setting up tents or sleeping on sidewalks. 

In September 2022, a lawsuit from 10 plaintiffs was filed against the city alleging that the proliferation of people living outside in tents and sleeping bags has led to sidewalks and other walkways being frequently blocked—a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

The city opted to settle the suit rather than going to court, and will pay $5,000 to each plaintiff, on top of attorney’s fees. More notably, the settlement will also lead the city to devote $20 million over the next five years toward campsite removals, often called sweeps, prioritizing sweeps that block sidewalks. A new web-based data dashboard will be developed, accessible to the public, with information on the city’s response to complaints of obstructed sidewalks, and a 24-hour reporting system will be available for the public to make a report when tents or related items are blocking a sidewalk.

The settlement also calls for the city to stop distributing any tents or tarps, with exceptions for severe winter weather. It won’t prevent other organizations, like Multnomah County’s Joint Office of Homeless Services, from distributing those supplies.

Plaintiffs in the suit, some of whom are visually impaired, say they’ve struggled to navigate sidewalks without tripping over tents or debris. Others said they’ve been attacked by unleashed dogs. 

“I’m here to clear the sidewalks, not just for me, but for all citizens of Portland,” Steve Jackson, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, told the council.

Cody Hermeling, who lost his vision after a horrific car crash on Highway 30 in 2010, said leaving the house each day is “like playing pin the tail on the donkey. It’s quite difficult.”

Hermeling said he was blinded after being hit by a car, “and now I don’t have a car to protect me from other cars.”

Beth Woodard and Naomi Sheffield of the Portland City Attorney's
Office address City Council on a legal settlement.  Courtney vaughn

Homeless advocates note as many as 55 percent of unhoused residents live with some form of disability, according to the latest Point in Time Count data. 

City commissioners, including the mayor, praised the lawsuit and its plaintiffs.

“It’s very common for me to get sued in my role as the mayor of this city. I don’t always welcome being sued. This is a notable exception,” Wheeler said. “I agree with you. I agree with the reasons the lawsuit was filed.”

“We have been too slow to address unsanctioned camping and crime on our streets” Commissioner Rene Gonzalez said, calling the settlement “one step in a long journey to retake our city.”

The rhetoric of “taking back the city” from homelessness and crime is one echoed by Tiana Tozer, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.

“I spent hours poring over the tent and tarp distribution records,” Tozer told the council, before railing against Disability Rights Oregon for not supporting her case. Tozer also blasted Multnomah County’s Joint Office of Homeless Services for a lack of accountability and their lion’s share of tent and tarp distribution to unhoused Portlanders.

“This settlement is not everything I’d hoped for, but for me, democracy has always been about compromise... contrary to progressive democracy in Portland, which seems to be screaming, rioting, and violence when you don’t get your way. I urge you and all Portlanders to reject extremes and false narratives. We, your constituents with disabilities, are here today to urge you to uphold your obligation to provide us the access that is our right….” 

Residents fill council chambers to give testimony on a disability
lawsuit settlement with the city of Portland Wednesday, May 31. 

Tozer's tough, "no pity" disposition and many of her talking points intersect heavily with those of People For Portland, the controversial and political mudslinging special interest group that Tozer often platforms on social media. People For Portland is known primarily for raising money in hopes of influencing public policy targeting the homeless, while also criticizing local elected officials for perceived inaction on crime and homelessness. The group is also responsible for a “Schmidt Show” billboard downtown slamming Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt.

Critics say the council embraced the lawsuit because it gave them cover to double down on stiffer prohibitions on homeless camping.

Others, like Tom Stenson of Disability Rights Oregon (DRO), say the city is likely not in compliance with ADA laws, but the settlement agreement won’t fix that. Instead, Stenson argues, without stable housing, it will only push people from one sidewalk to another.

Stenson, DRO's deputy legal director, noted a similar settlement in Los Angeles, which instead devoted funds toward housing in order to move people off the streets.

“There doesn’t seem to be a long term solution to this,” Stenson told the Mercury Wednesday afternoon. “I think what people are looking for and what they need is long term housing. They need mental health help and (assistance) for recovering from substance abuse. It’s bizarre to me that we’re refusing to use the funds that are specifically dedicated to finding people housing, and instead doubling down on sweeps.”

Stenson told the council that after the city initiated more sweeps of homeless encampments in Old Town, the issue of blocked sidewalks only got worse, not better.

Wheeler said the ADA lawsuit “is not intended as a comprehensive solution to homelessness.”

“It is a statement about rights and upholding the rights under the constitution and the Americans With Disabilities Act.”