Updated: 12:02 pm April 22.

This story has been updated to include new information about another proposed policy amendment and to correct the name of the case before the Supreme Court this week.

Two weeks after Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office unveiled a heavily revised ordinance to address restrictions on homeless camping in Portland, other commissioners are floating their own versions. Despite the various plans on the table, homelessness experts say none of the proposed ordinances get to the root of the problem, or offer solutions to fix it.

Earlier this week, City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez released a draft version of an ordinance that was vastly different from the one put forward by Wheeler. Gonzalez sought stiffer restrictions and higher penalties for violators–many of the same elements that landed the previous homeless camping ordinance in court. 

In contrast, Commissioner Carmen Rubio is asking Portland City Council to consider amendments requiring police to collect and share data about any arrests of unhoused people who violate new city rules, in order to ensure the ordinance “is not being disproportionally enforced.”

Rubio’s amendment reads: “The Portland Police Bureau to provide quarterly aggregated data updates to Council related to the number of arrests, demographics of arrested individuals, and frequency of arrests pursuant to the City Code provisions set forth in Exhibit A. These updates should be made in a form easily accessible to the public.”

Rubio is also asking for a clause that emphasizes the importance of transparency.

By Monday, Commissioner Mingus Mapps had his own amendment for the council to consider. Mapps's revision suggests the city create a "Public Environment Executive Team" comprised of the mayor, city administrator, deputy city administrators and other executive branch employees designated by the mayor. The team would review "any policy proposals related to homelessness and unsanctioned camping," and recommend city code changes to the mayor, as needed. The mayor could then choose to bring any changes to city council for a vote.

Rubio, Mapps and Gonzalez are each running for mayor in the November election.

Gonzalez’s proposal excludes “adequate shelter”

While Wheeler’s revised ordinance hinges on the availability of enough shelter beds to serve the city’s current unhoused population, Gonzalez’s proposed amendments prohibit public camping outright, with no mention of adequate shelter beds. The commissioner also wants the ordinance to be handled solely by the mayor’s office. 

Similarly, Wheeler’s ordinance lays out restrictions on the types of activity prohibited in public areas and public right-of-ways (no fires or gas heaters, no blocking pedestrian access zones, no erecting structures). Gonzalez wants no exceptions. 

Many of the more rigid rules Gonzalez is proposing could only take effect if state law changes to allow cities to enact their own restrictions. They also hinge on the outcome of a landmark case regarding homeless regulations, Johnson v. Grants Pass, set to be heard by the Supreme Court. That case led to a ruling that homeless people cannot be punished simply for sleeping outside on public property unless adequate shelter is available.

Gonzalez’s team says the commissioner considered similar ordinances regulating homeless camping in Gresham and Washington County, and wants to see Portland try to align its rules with its surrounding cities. However, unlike the city’s plan, Gresham’s regulations don’t spell out fines or penalties for non-compliance.

Gonzalez’s staff did not respond to a question about whether they’re concerned the commissioner’s proposed ordinance could once again land the city in legal trouble.

The commissioner also asserts that giving the mayor the final say would make it easier to enact any needed changes, because it wouldn’t have to be approved by city council. That proposal appears out of line with recent efforts from Portlanders to instill more democratic processes in local government, and increase opportunities for voter engagement with decision makers. 

Gonzalez’s office says even if the current council votes to give the mayor control over the ordinance and its future iterations, that could be undone by future councilors. 

“Future councils could also repeal this ordinance. This is not a permanent deal,” Shah Smith, Gonzalez’s chief of staff, told the Mercury.

Gonzalez abandons calls for high fines, jail time

The revised ordinance from Gonzalez, set to be reviewed by City Council next week, proposes fines up to $100 and up to seven days of jail time–the same language in Wheeler’s proposal.

The latest iteration of Gonzalez’s proposed amendments appear to walk back his original amendments, which called for much stiffer fines and jail time. His latest proposal wouldn’t increase the fines or penalties for those who violate city code, though The Oregonian and Willamette Week both reported earlier this week that the commissioner wanted to increase fines up to $500, and substantially increase jail time to six months or a year, if state and federal laws allowed. 

Wheeler’s initial draft ordinance, which was supposed to go before the Portland City Council Thursday for a vote, was introduced as a fix to the time, place, manner ordinance adopted by the city last year. That ordinance was challenged in court, and never got implemented. 

Opponents called the ordinance burdensome and said its rules for where unhoused residents may rest in public were overly restrictive and punitive, making them impossible to comply with. Without enough shelter beds in the region, attorneys for plaintiffs said the ordinance would merely punish people for being unhoused.

Wheeler’s office came back with a version that was far less restrictive, and removed requirements specifying what time of day people could camp. 

Two days before the council was set to consider the mayor’s proposal, it was pulled from the agenda. Wheeler’s office said a few commissioners requested the vote be postponed. It’s now scheduled to come back on the council’s April 24 agenda.

Before the council vote, activist group Stop the Sweeps PDX plans to rally at Pioneer Courthouse Square Monday, April 22, in opposition to the city’s plan to implement fines and jail time for unhoused Portlanders. The rally coincides with the Supreme Court’s consideration of the Grants Pass case.

“Our message is that it is cruel and unusual punishment to criminalize unhoused people for sleeping, sitting, eating, and conducting other life-sustaining activities in public when actual HOUSING is not available,” organizers stated in an email. The rally is part of a national day of action organized by a group of west coast social justice coalitions that make up the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP). WRAP seeks to eradicate the root causes of homelessness, while fighting for civil and human rights protections.

Ordinance could hinder pathways to housing

While city leaders debate where and how to regulate the daily survival activities of thousands of people living unsheltered, policy experts say ordinances that merely aim to reduce visible homelessness won’t fix the root problem, and could actually make it harder for people to get off the streets.

Marisa Zapata is an associate professor of land use planning at Portland State University. She also leads the university’s Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative. 

She worries about how the city’s new rules will be enforced, and how they’ll impact unhoused residents.

“The reality is we don’t have enough shelter, period. As long as there is a requirement that we have to have enough shelter, then a lot of these discussions become moot,” Zapata says. “I think my concern is indiscriminate enforcement of policy. I’d be concerned about implementation of that and how that’s going to actually function.”

The professor and researcher says criminalizing people for living outside will only make it harder for them to enter housing.

“We know it’s impossible for people experiencing homelessness to dig out of a criminal hole,” Zapata says. “A lot of times when people who’ve exited the criminal justice system end up living outside, and fines stack up, it could end up on their credit report.”