Central Oregon cities diverge on rules for homeless camping

By Joni Auden Land (OPB)
May 30, 2023 1 p.m.

Few cities east of the Cascades had camping codes, until now.

Cities across Oregon are racing to meet a deadline to pass camping codes, in an effort to comply with a state law declaring an emergency around homelessness.

Local governments have until July 1 to approve regulations in line with Oregon House Bill 3115. Approved by the Legislature in 2021, the law requires that any restrictions on camping must be “objectively reasonable.”


Since the law passed, many cities have for the first time started codifying restrictions on those living outside. In Central Oregon, local governments have different interpretations of what “objectively reasonable” means. Bend and Prineville have passed sweeping prohibitions, as Madras mulls setting aside land to host unsheltered people.

FILE: A camper parked on North Hunnel Road in Bend, Ore., on December, 28, 2022.

FILE: A camper parked on North Hunnel Road in Bend, Ore., on December, 28, 2022.

Joni Land / OPB

This all stems from Martin v. Boise, a 2019 federal ruling that stated a city could not cite someone for sleeping outside if they have nowhere else to go. Oregon’s 2021 state law is meant to ensure cities regulate camping in keeping with that precedent.

On May 23, the Prineville City Council approved sweeping restrictions. They prohibit camping from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., within 1,000 feet of a school building, blocking a city sidewalk, or within 100 feet of a waterway.

City Manager Steve Forrester said that in Prineville, population 11,000, homelessness doesn’t look like rows of tents on city blocks — it’s often more subtle.

“What we’ve seen around town more often than tent camping or just open camping, it’s usually been an RV of some sort on public land,” Forrester said.

Prineville’s code was developed in closed door discussions with the city police department and local service providers, City Attorney Jered Reid said. Those meetings were not held publicly, and the code’s recent passage during a first reading did not attract any public input.

Half an hour north in Madras, city officials are discussing a more permissive approach.


In a draft code, officials would set aside two neighboring parcels of land where people could camp 24 hours a day. Madras Community Development Director Nick Snead said a camp already exists on one of those properties, and city leaders want to avoid uprooting people, if possible.

“It’s been conceived at this point in time as a way to allow those individuals to stay where they’re at, which apparently they’re somewhat accustomed to,” Snead said.

Snead said the sites could eventually resemble a managed camp, similar to a series of city-run camps set to be built in Portland. Madras officials are still deciding what their level of involvement could be.

Snead said the language of the code may change before its expected to come before the Madras City Council in June.

Tony Mitchell is the director of the Jefferson County Faith-Based Network, which provides meals and winter shelter for people experiencing homelessness in Madras. He estimated the city of 7,500 people has at least 100 unsheltered residents, and around 40 of those people are Indigenous.

Mitchell serves on Madras’ Homeless Advisory Committee and said he hopes any camping code balances the desires of the city with those who need a place to sleep.

“These are our community residents — they’re living in challenging and precarious situations,” Mitchell said.

He added that sparsely-populated, rural places like Jefferson County are stretched thin and don’t always have the resources to ensure a robust safety net.

Central Oregon’s largest city recently passed its own camping code, which took effect in March.

In some ways, Bend’s rules are far more stringent than those being considered for Madras, or what was approved in Prineville. In Bend, people camping on city property must move sites every 24 hours and there can only be three campsites per city block.

The Bend City Council narrowly approved the code after weeks of discussion and hours of acrimonious public comment. Some service providers in the area told councilors forcing people to repeatedly move could hinder their ability to provide services.

Because of the vagueness of the state mandate for codes to be “objectively reasonable,” cities are not immune from potential lawsuits. The ACLU sent Bend leaders a letter in March, warning of potential liabilities.

“The new code may very well be a de facto ban given the unavailability of shelter beds, the extremely limited amount of physical space, and the numerous other restrictions on people sleeping outside,” the letter said.