A revised ordinance regulating camping in Portland city limits was given final approval Wednesday, after a previous version was challenged in court.

With a unanimous Portland City Council vote, officers will soon have authority to issue warnings or penalize people living outside if they refuse shelter.

The new ordinance, which will be added to city codes, clarifies the definition of camping (setting up or occupying tents, tarps, sleeping bags, shacks, or similar temporary supplies) and spells out which activities are prohibited on public property and rights-of-way like sidewalks and streets.

The new city codes are a major departure from what was adopted last year. Previous code language required unhoused people to pack up and clear their belongings from public spaces each day from 8 am to 8 pm. Those rules were eliminated this time around, after a lawsuit against the city filed last fall argued those requirements were unreasonable and nearly impossible to comply with.  

Under the new ordinance, if a shelter bed is available, but declined by a person camping in public, they could be hit with a fine up to $100 and/or a week in jail. City leaders stressed that diversion will be prioritized, rather than immediate punitive action.

Homeless advocacy groups say fining the unhoused is a futile effort that will only lead to unpaid fees that stymie the ability of people to find stable housing.

"It’s really disappointing and frustrating to see our elected leaders spend hours arguing and spend hours of public time and resources on how to pass the best policy for how to fine and jail people who don't have homes, instead of forming policy to get people into homes,” says Molly Hogan, executive director of the Welcome Home Coalition. The coalition is a conglomerate of service providers, affordable housing developers and policy advocates working toward increasing housing and getting people off the streets.

Hogan says there are many reasons why a person might decline a congregate shelter.

"They might often feel safer on their own outside,” Hogan says, noting not everyone can function in a crowded space with strangers. She says service providers will likely be left to sort and pay the fines of those without housing.

“The burden is going to fall on the community organizations,” Hogan says. “There are often public subsidies that go toward these organizations, like the Supportive Housing Services funds. “The (community-based organization) would have to use a portion of those funds to pay off people’s fines.”

With police being the primary driver of enforcement, the city's ordinance requires Portland Police Bureau to collect and report data on the demographics and frequency of arrests made under the new public camping codes.

Wednesday’s vote was the second reading of an ordinance initially released by Wheeler’s office, then amended by Commissioners Carmen Rubio and Mingus Mapps. Three amendments pitched by Commissioner Rene Gonzalez failed to garner enough votes to move forward. The council first discussed the new ordinance two weeks ago, after hearing more than two hours of public testimony.

Despite the council’s unanimous approval, Gonzalez, who previously pushed for an outright ban on public camping and fines up to $1,000, reiterated his objections to the code changes. Gonzalez asserted the new codes are overly complex, and won’t reduce the number of encampments in the city.

“Unelected attorneys for well-funded homeless advocates seem to have more influence on this code than the office of the commissioner for public safety,” the commissioner said, referring to himself. He argued the city’s rules should align with neighboring cities that don’t allow public camping, like Gresham. Unlike Portland, Gresham doesn’t fine or penalize people for sleeping in public.

Gonzalez suggested the city was better when it didn’t allow unhoused residents to sleep in public. 

But the yesteryear Gonzalez longs for had far fewer people living without housing. While people have lived on Portland’s streets for decades, housing cost increases have outpaced wages for many renters over the past decade. The city’s own website notes the homeless population skyrocketed over a short period.

“Overall homelessness in Portland increased by 65 percent from 2015 to 2023 (from 1,887 to 6,297 individuals),” the city of Portland notes, citing data from the latest Point-In-Time count.

The commissioner was resolute in his opposition, framing thousands of unsheltered people as self-destructive criminals whose plight is overshadowed by the Portlanders who want relief from seeing homeless encampments. 

“Portlanders are overwhelmed by encampments, relentless violence, the crime, unsanitary conditions, and the inhumane slow-motion self-destruction of thousands in full public view,” Gonzalez said, blaming those living in poverty as well as the courts for not allowing cities to craft their own rules around visible homelessness.

There is no data to suggest that unhoused people commit more crime than those who have housing. 

The mayor and the city’s lead attorney previously said the new rules were crafted to meet existing state and federal laws, after the city’s last camping ordinance was challenged in court.

Portland is currently constrained by a state law passed in 2021 that requires any local ordinance regulating the activity of homeless people to be “objectively reasonable as to time, place, and manner” of sitting or resting in public. The city is also bound by a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in the landmark Martin v. Boise case. In that case, the federal appeals court ruled that cities can’t prohibit people from sleeping outside if there is no available shelter for them. 

“While I realize there are people who wish that we could act in a stronger manner, and in a more forceful manner, it would be in violation of Martin v. Boise and it would be in violation of House Bill 3115,” Wheeler, who got the last word before the final vote, said.

“The people of this city have me for nine more months. If after nine months you want to disband with constitutional rights and you want to disband with the notion of following the law, you may do so, but as long as I am mayor, I will continue to fight in support of constitutional rights and in support of upholding the law.”

In a last-minute change, the council opted to make the agenda item an emergency ordinance, allowing it to go into effect almost immediately.