Portland has settled with a group of individuals who sued over the way the city conducts homeless sweeps.
The class-action lawsuit, filed nearly a year ago, alleged city contractors were illegally discarding the personal belongings of people living outdoors while dispersing homeless encampments.
Plaintiffs said the city failed to properly document property that was removed, and failed to give people a reasonable opportunity to retrieve their belongings.
One of the plaintiffs said she had been subjected to four sweeps within six months and had lost all of her clothing, her tent, a laptop, sleeping bag and bedding as a result.
The city has now implemented a new set of rules dictating why, when and how campsites will be removed. The lawsuit was dismissed as a result of the new policies; the plaintiffs were not seeking a monetary award. They were represented by the Oregon Justice Resource Center, along with Michael Fuller and the Underdog Law Office.
As part of the new campsite removal process, the city will de-prioritize dispersing what it considers “low-impact” campsites. That includes campsites that aren’t near schools, child care facilities or parks, and that are outside of flood and wildfire hazards.
The city will prioritize for removal and “high-impact” campsites, including those with the areas named above. It also includes sites with confirmed criminal activity or excessive amounts uncontained debris.
Under the new rules, the city will provide a 72-hour notice before dispersing an encampment. The notice will include specific details about the area being cleaned up, along with instructions on where removed property will be available for retrieval.
During cleanup, city agents will give people in the encampments at least an hour before removing any personal property. And the city is required to maintain a database of all personal property removed from the site.
The city has agreed to store all personal property for no less than 30 days. Prescription drugs found to be in the correct bottles will be stored until they expire, and IDs, credit cards and money will be stored for no less than a year.
Anything found to be unsanitary, or of no apparent value or utility, will be discarded.
The city has also agreed not to disperse any encampments during severe winter weather or periods of excessive heat. And all agents performing campsite removal will be trained annually in crisis intervention.
The lawsuit’s plaintiffs said the uncertainty of past sweeps, and the fear that they’d lose their property at any moment, made it hard for them to leave their encampments. In turn, that made it difficult for them to find medical care, to work, or to look for work.
“This settlement represents a real victory by the plaintiffs in compelling the City of Portland to follow the law and to make it clear to people impacted by sweeps how and when it will carry them out,” Oregon Justice Resource Center attorney Franz Bruggemeier said in a statement Monday. “This does not mean an end to sweeps or the constant trauma and harms that come with those removals ... But we hope it will provide clarity to those living outside in public to better be able to reduce some of the harms of being removed from the places they are living.”
Just last week, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler announced plans to declare an emergency regarding cleanup up the city, including trash, graffiti and abandoned cars. But he noted this emergency change would not include homeless encampments.
In a written statement, city officials said they were satisfied with the outcome of the suit: “The City was pleased to update its policies on handling personal property as part of the City’s ongoing campsite cleanup and removal program. The amended policy incorporates some suggestions that will provide more transparency, clarity, and predictability to all involved. Some changes will help City staff perform their work more effectively.”