An ordinance that heavily restricts where and when unhoused residents can rest in the city was approved by the Portland City Council 3-1 on Wednesday, June 7. Commissioner Carmen Rubio was the lone “no” vote. Commissioner Mingus Mapps was absent.
The ordinance was brought forward by Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office the week prior, drawing five hours of public testimony and written comments from almost 500 people.
Wheeler’s office says maps of acceptable areas to set up tents and sleep will be released by the city, for the thousands of people impacted by the new ordinance.
The new ordinance, which takes effect July 1, updates city code to prohibit camping from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in many public spaces throughout the city, including parks, and within 250 feet of schools, child care centers, construction sites, environmental overlay zones, and established safe rest sites. Violators could be fined up to $100 and/or sentenced up to 30 days in jail.
Portland’s city codes already prohibit tents on public property during all hours of the day, punishable by fines or jail time, but those rules haven’t been enforced, in part because they conflict with House Bill 3115. Passed in 2021, the legislation dictates that any rules or restrictions around homelessness must be reasonable with regard to time, place, and manner.
As Multnomah County’s homeless population is growing, so too is political pressure on elected leaders to toughen their response to homelessness.
Before voting, Rubio said she would’ve liked to see the city wait before implementing the ordinance, until police and other city staff could be trained on its enforcement. She had previously requested a delayed implementation, until Portland’s forthcoming temporary alternative shelter sites were up and running, but the rest of the council didn’t support the change.
“I know that the mayor’s intent here is not to put in place a green light to arrest people,” Rubio said. “That I don’t doubt, but for me, I need to see that this ordinance is planful about its impact and does not cause harm.”
Rubio noted the council agreed last year not to include any provisions in its rules that “would criminalize people, solely for being homeless.”
Violators will first be given two written warnings before being cited or receiving jail time.
While city leaders say the ordinance is a necessary step to connect people with services and prohibit them from living in the streets and public spaces, the practicality and legality of the ordinance remains to be seen.
Wheeler's office said the city believes the ordinance is legally sound, but attorneys with the Oregon Law Center, a nonprofit group that assists low-income people in need of legal help, asserts the ordinance doesn’t meet legal muster.
“This ordinance is not objectively reasonable, when you look at [time, place and manner],” Ed Johnson, director of litigation for the Oregon Law Center, told the Mercury. “When you look at the list of places that you can't sleep or stay warm and dry, it’s almost impossible to find any place that you can.”
According to Johnson, absent new signage that would litter the city in every direction, it could be nearly impossible to know which areas are prohibited.
“Laws have to be understandable, not only to the people enforcing them, but also to the people following it, so they know whether they’re following it or not,” Johnson added. “I think this ordinance is unconstitutionally vague. It’s impossible for someone to know when they are in an illegal spot, based on the shifting definitions in the ordinance.”
Conversely, Commissioner Rene Gonzalez posited the ordinance doesn’t go far enough in its prohibitions, but also acknowledged the ordinance is cumbersome and confusing.
“The code changes are going to be very difficult to explain, much less operationalize,” the commissioner wrote in a tweet summarizing a series of recommended changes. Gonzalez never brought his amendments to council for consideration, citing a lack of support from other commissioners.
The ordinance will likely rely on the Portland Police Bureau to carry out the ban, raising questions about the city’s capacity for enforcement, given the bureau’s staffing constraints. Last week, the mayor and police chief cited limited police staffing, among other reasons, for abandoning a gunshot detection technology pilot program.
Wheeler emphasized the ordinance will focus on education and outreach during its initial rollout, noting the goal is “to connect people with services, not to impose punishment.”
Wheeler’s office noted beefed up police recruiting efforts and pressure being put on the Oregon Legislature for more money to expand police force training at the state level.
During a May 31 public hearing, homeless service providers overwhelmingly opposed the ordinance.
“I am tired of cleaning up after a city that punishes rather than helps our unsheltered neighbors suffering from skyrocketing rents and housing prices,” Sandra Comstock, executive director of Hygiene 4 All, told the council. “Asking homeless Portlanders–60 percent of whom live with one or more disabilities–to carry their homes on their backs 12 hours a day, seven days a week, will heighten mental and physical distress.”
Others say the money spent on enforcement would be better spent on housing solutions. A collaborative study done by nonprofit groups and the University of California Irvine in Southern California found the region spent more on services for chronically homeless people than it would have spent on permanent supportive housing.
“Taking into consideration the average cost of services per capita, we estimate a cost savings of approximately $42 million per year if all Orange County chronically homeless were placed into permanent supportive housing,” the study’s key findings noted.
Another study out of Seattle came to similar conclusions.
Opposition and public outcry wasn’t enough to sway the council. Staff in the mayor’s office noted the city received more testimony in favor of the camping ban than against it.
City commissioners said they’re focused on homeless residents who refuse shelter. Punitive measures will bar them from “camping anywhere in the city because they have an alternative place to go.”
“Every day I talk to tenants, property owners, employees, families, and elders who no longer feel safe in our city,” Commissioner Dan Ryan said before voting to approve the measure. “Portland, you’ve been patient. I hear you. Your patience has run out.”