Updated: October 2
The city of Portland faces a legal challenge over its new ordinance prohibiting unhoused people from living or resting in most public spaces.
A class-action lawsuit filed Friday, September 29 by Oregon Law Center, asserts the city’s restrictions on homeless camping are unconstitutional, cruel, and impossible to comply with.
A city ordinance approved in June imposed new rules requiring people living outside to pick up their tents, sleeping bags, and other belongings, and remove them each day from 8 a.m to 8 p.m. Those who don’t comply face a written warning, then a potential $100 fine or up to 30 days in jail.
The ordinance has yet to be enforced. City officials said they’re allowing extra time to train police on enforcing the new rules, and allowing time for education and outreach to those who would be impacted.
Attorneys say it’s unreasonable to expect someone living outside to pack up all of their belongings each day and try to find somewhere to go for 12 hours.
“As our Complaint shows, this ordinance is cruel and unreasonable,” Ed Johnson, director of litigation for the Oregon Law Center, stated. “It is a huge step in the wrong direction. We need to solve homelessness. Instead of focusing on proven solutions like more affordable supportive housing, rent assistance tenant protections and other services, this ordinance makes it a crime to be homeless. It criminalizes the people that have already been left out and punishes them with jail and fines for simply trying to survive.”
Under the new ordinance, campsites are prohibited on public property, walkways, and all areas within 250 feet of schools or childcare centers, construction zones, environmental overlays, and existing Safe Rest Village or safe park sites. The city created fliers and a color-coded online map showing which areas are off limits, but stopped short of posting signage.
Oregon Law Center's complaint notes the ordinance provides "an incomprehensible list" of where people can't camp, but provides no guidance on where a person would go for basic acts of survival, like sleeping, resting, or staying warm and dry at night.
When the Portland City Council approved the ordinance in June, Mayor Ted Wheeler noted the ordinance would focus on education and outreach during its initial rollout. He said the goal is “to connect people with services, not to impose punishment.”
James Duncan is one of five plaintiffs named in the lawsuit. Duncan, 40, has disabilities, including epilepsy stemming from a traumatic brain injury, anxiety, and PTSD. He’s been homeless for most of the last four years. Duncan said he collects cans and bottles for money to afford food and medicine since he and his wife split up and he lost his job.
“I do not understand where I can sleep under the new ordinance,” Duncan wrote in a declaration included in the lawsuit. “I don’t think that I’m allowed to sleep in the MAX, and, even if I could, there’s no service from midnight to 4 a.m. I sleep during the day because it’s safer and there are more people around, and since I’ve been robbed and beaten up in the past, I’m afraid to sleep at night.”
Duncan said if he gets arrested for violating the new ordinance, it would be virtually impossible for him to function in jail with PTSD.
Another plaintiff, Karen Engelhardt, said she grew up in Vancouver, Washington, and graduated from Evergreen High School, before attending community college in Vancouver and later, Chico, California.
Engelhardt, 46, sells ink drawings outside Powell’s Books in Portland for money, but has no other income. She said she’s been homeless off and on for the last decade. She’s on waitlists for housing, but in the meantime, she worries what the new rules will mean for her, and doesn’t know where she could sleep without breaking the law.
“I don’t know where I could put my belongings between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. every day,” Engelhardt wrote. “I know there is a storage container under the Steel Bridge, but it’s not open until 8 p.m. at night on any day. If I go to jail, I’ll have no way to make a living or stay in touch with Home Forward and other possible housing leads.”
Like Engelhardt, critics say people living outside likely won’t be able to tell which areas are off limits, and the ordinance could lead to heavy police profiling of unhoused residents.
Others say the city’s new policy will only deepen disparities for Portland’s most vulnerable residents.
“As the saying goes, ‘when America catches a cold, Black folks get pneumonia,’” Nkenge Harmon Johnson, president and CEO of the Urban League of Portland, wrote in a declaration accompanying the lawsuit. “The housing crisis in our region has impacted Black communities harder than others."
In the legal declaration, Harmon Johnson said the Urban League is “deeply saddened” by the city’s ordinance and expects it to cause harm to those already struggling without housing, especially Black people.
“We restate our long-held stance on this issue that the banning and criminalization of homelessness will only prolong the City of Portland’s homelessness problem, not solve it.”
Oregon lawmakers passed legislation in 2021 that dictates any local law regulating resting or keeping warm and dry outdoors on public property must be "objectively reasonable" regarding time, place and manner restrictions. The legislation went into effect this year.
Attorneys with the Oregon Law Center requested a temporary restraining order Friday, and were hoping for a preliminary injunction to put Portland’s ordinance on pause until it undergoes legal review by the courts.
That request was denied by a judge, records show.
In its request for a restraining order, the Oregon Law Center notes the state law around homelessness restrictions “was passed to protect people living outside from fines and jail.”