A proposed ordinance that would effectively ban daytime camping in Portland drew five hours of public testimony, but no vote Wednesday, May 31.
After a first reading, the Portland City Council is expected to vote on the ordinance Wednesday, June 7.
Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office introduced the camping ban proposal, which would prohibit sleeping or placing tents within 250 feet from schools or child care centers, parks, public right-of-ways, and other designated “no camping” areas from 8 am to 8 pm.
The ordinance would also prohibit gas stoves and fires, and the accumulation of bike parts or debris near tents or camp sites. Violators will first be given two warnings before they face up to $100 in fines or up to 30 days in jail.
“There are currently hundreds of unsanctioned, often squalid and sometimes dangerous homeless camps across 146 square miles of the city of Portland,” Wheeler said, noting enforcement of the rules is “intended to be a tool to connect people with appropriate resources.”
The ordinance aims to bring the city’s rules for homeless camping in line with House Bill 3115, which dictates any codes regulating sitting, sleeping, or lying in public must be reasonable if restrictions on time, place, or manner are imposed.
The Portland Police Bureau declined to comment on the bureau's capacity to enforce a new ordinance, deferring questions back to Wheeler's office.
The Multnomah District Attorney's Office said it's too soon to know how enforcement and prosecutions would work, but staff said the mayor's office reached out before bringing the ordinance to the council.
"There are still more details to come on how enforcement will work," Liz Merah, a spokesperson with the D.A.'s Office, said. "As we do in other cases when charges are referred to our office, we will look at the facts and evidence provided and make charging decisions from there."
Enforcement is likely to have an outsized impact on the public defense system. Oregon has a documented shortage of public defenders, which has delayed prosecutions in many cases.
Homeless advocates rallied outside City Hall, calling the proposed ordinance “inhumane." In all, 176 people signed up to testify during the public hearing.
Mike O’Callaghan, a longtime advocate and unhoused Portlander, said the proposed rules “disable the human being from being safe, warm, and dry.”
“[Homelessness] causes insanity, it causes drug use… and people need a better system,” O’Callaghan said.
Staff in Wheeler’s office said Portland is one of many cities across Oregon scrambling to adopt revised rules that comply with HB 3115. Attorneys with both the ACLU and Oregon Law Center say Portland’s response to HB 3115 is misguided, noting this law clearly wasn’t intended to make it more difficult to sleep outside, or criminalize anyone just for being homeless.
The city found support for the ordinance from Portlanders frustrated with encampments, as well as real estate groups, and business owners such as Aaron Watzig of West Side Electric. Watzig said his company lost employees "because they didn't want to come to work or live around the extreme camping and drugs around us." However, others say the proposal further demonizes people living outside and criminalizes poverty. Homeless services organizations, advocates, mental health professionals, and nurses urged the council to reject the ordinance.
Molly Hogan, executive director of Welcome Home Coalition, said the ordinance would be nearly impossible to comply with.
“I think, effectively, the outcome of this is more criminalization of people experiencing homelessness and I think expecting people to be able to comply with packing up tents and carrying away all their belongings every morning at 8 am is really unrealistic,” Hogan said during the rally.
Nonprofits like Blanchet House and Rose Haven said they’ll undoubtedly be tasked with serving more people with nowhere to go. They asked the council for funding to help offset the increased demand.
Some regional shelters require occupants to leave during the day. City staff previously suggested libraries could provide a safe space to go during the day, but the city has yet to offer any list or map of acceptable locations to camp.
Many currently or formerly homeless residents said the ordinance doesn’t address the dangerous realities of living on the street, which often leads people, especially women, to sleep during the day and stay vigilant at night, when they’re most susceptible to theft or assault.
Commissioner Carmen Rubio suggested pausing enforcement of the ordinance until at least two temporary alternative mass shelters are up and running. The first of the mass shelter sites is slated to open mid-summer. The second one is projected to open this fall. The council rejected her amendment. If approved next week, the ordinance would go into effect July 1.
This story has been updated with input from the D.A.'s Office.