Portland City Council members will decide Wednesday if they will adopt a broad ban on outdoor camping on public property across the city. The policy, updated to meet the terms of a 2021 state law, appears to reverse the city’s prior stance against criminalizing homelessness.
“Homeless camps represent nothing short of a humanitarian catastrophe,” said Mayor Ted Wheeler in a statement announcing the policy. “As a result our community continues to suffer substantial public health, safety and livability concerns.”
The policy, introduced by Wheeler, prohibits camping on any public land between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. It also imposes strict limitations on where people are allowed to camp — and what they are allowed to do while camping — during the other 12 hours.
Portland already prohibits camping on public property at all hours of the day, yet this rule is rarely enforced. In recent years, Wheeler has passed a handful of emergency orders to prohibit camping in specific areas — like near busy streets or near schools. This proposed policy would codify these orders, along with adding new restrictions.
If passed, homeless Portlanders would still be banned from camping in most public areas overnight, including parks, docks, riverbanks, alongside busy streets and areas within 250 feet of a school, city-sanctioned homeless village, or construction site.
If they’re able to find a legal place to set up a tent at night, homeless Portlanders will be prohibited from starting a fire, using a gas heater, littering and selling bikes or cars at their location. Unhoused campers will also be limited from using more than 10 square feet outside their tent to store belongings.
By 8 a.m., all people sleeping outside must pack up their tents and leave public property, per the policy.
If people violate any of these new rules, they will be given a written warning from a Portland police officer. If they violate them a second time, they will receive a second warning. Once someone violates the camping policies three times, police can fine them up to $100 or send them to jail for up to 30 days.
Pushed by a state law
The new policy is informed by state law passed in 2021 meant to move cities away from criminalizing Oregonians for being homeless.
House Bill 3115, which was introduced by then-House Speaker Tina Kotek, requires cities to make “objectively reasonable” rules about when, where and how people can sit and lie outdoors on public property.
The measure was written to enshrine a 2018 federal ruling by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Martin v. Boise; that decision prohibits cities from arresting people for sleeping on public property — unless there is enough shelter available to accommodate a city’s homeless population. Like HB 3115, the federal appeals court determined that governments can impose “reasonable” rules about where and when people camp on public property.
Portland already prohibits camping on public property, and threatens violators with up to $100 in fines. While this city code provision is rarely enforced, it could be challenged under Martin v. Boise and potentially could be found to violate HB 3115. The city’s new rule, barring camping on public property from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., will update the local policy by aiming to meet the “objectively reasonable” standards laid out in HB 3115.
Whether the proposed new restrictions meet the legal definition of “objectively reasonable” remains to be seen.
The state law notes that “reasonableness shall be determined based on the totality of the circumstances, including, but not limited to, the impact of the law on persons experiencing homelessness.”
Representatives from the ACLU of Oregon told OPB that they don’t believe Wheeler’s proposal accounts for the impact the rule would have on people experiencing homelessness.
“Mayor Ted Wheeler’s proposed approach lacks clarity for those who have to follow it and fails to consider the experience of having nowhere else to sleep but in public,” reads a statement co-signed by ACLU of Oregon Director Sandy Chung and Legal Director Kelly Simon. “Surely, if a city doesn’t include homeless people in creating a strategy to address homelessness, it will be much harder for them to create a law that meets the reasonableness standard.”
Wheeler’s office says the new state law mandates that the city creates this new policy. That’s not exactly the case, according to people who helped shape HB 3115.
“HB 3115 requires an update to the [city policy] because the city was maintaining an unconstitutional ordinance,” said Becky Straus, an attorney at the Oregon Law Center who advised Kotek, now the governor, and other lawmakers on the phrasing of HB 3115. “It certainly didn’t require this particular update. The concern is that they are moving something unconstitutional to something that flies in the face of the state law.”
Straus said the bill gave cities two years to come into compliance to ensure they had time to write a policy that reflected feedback from people experiencing homelessness. She didn’t see that happen in Portland. Straus expects the city rule to be challenged in court due to its interpretation of “reasonableness.”
“As long as any city is not meaningfully engaging with people impacted by homelessness on the front end, it seems the only place left for their voice to be heard is in the court,” Straus said.
HB 3115 also creates a mechanism for the city to be sued if someone believes they’ve been wrongly penalized under the law.
Portland’s policy would go into effect July 1, the same day that HB 3115 takes effect. Portland is just one of many Oregon cities rushing to adopt new anti-camping policies before that deadline. Eugene, Salem and Springfield have all introduced policies that would ban camping in certain locations. The mayor’s office said it has been in conversation with other city leaders in the drafting of this new rule.
Wheeler’s office said its proposed policy requires that officers offer people who camp illegally space in a shelter, yet it is not included in the policy draft. If that person refuses to move into shelter, they will be penalized. If there are no shelter spaces available, the responsibility still remains on the unhoused person to relocate — or face penalties.
According to Multnomah County data, the county currently has 2,000 shelter beds open to the public, and around 90% of those are usually occupied. As of January, the county’s homeless population on any given night is estimated to be more than 6,200.
But what happens during the day?
Portland’s proposed rule would greatly limit homeless camping across the city at all times, but disproportionately impacts people who camp during the day. The mayor’s office suggests that daytime campers relocate to daytime homeless shelters or libraries to avoid penalties.
Scott Kerman is the director of Blanchet House, a nonprofit organization that serves three free meals a day in a cafeteria that serves as a daytime community center for unhoused Portlanders. He expects the policy to spur a surge in daytime visitors who are banned from sitting or sleeping outside — and he worries Blanchet House might not be able to meet the need.
“When the city enacts a new policy like this, programs like ours deal with the consequences,” Kerman said. “Those consequences are people, people who are displaced and traumatized and don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Blanchet House’s budget isn’t supported with any city funding. Kerman said it’s a big ask for city leaders to expect nonprofits like his to absorb the impact of their new policy without any financial help.
“This is how it tends to happen,” Kerman said. “The mayor’s office says it’s going to rain next week and we have to figure out how to keep everybody dry.”
The nonprofit Rose Haven hosts a daytime community center with space for up to 150 homeless women, children and non-binary people. Director Katie O’Brien said she’s frustrated that the city never contacted her to alert her to this new proposal, let alone ask for her perspective.
“The challenge is that there is no communication with people on the ground level who understand this issue in ways that [the city doesn’t],” O’Brien said. “They’ve never asked or supported us in any way.”
Like Blanchet House, Rose Haven receives no city funding.
The vast majority of Portland-area shelters require a reservation or specific referral to get in.
Daytime spaces for unhoused people that don’t require reservations are limited. Aside from Rose Haven and Blanchet House, the nonprofit JOIN offers a drop-in space for up to 100 people during the day, but its space is closed weekends. Rose Haven’s space also closes on weekends. And the Portland Rescue Mission operates a 24-7 shelter that can serve more than 100 people.
Worried about women
O’Brien said she’s particularly worried how this ban will impact homeless women, a population that is disproportionately vulnerable to abuse while living outside. She said it’s common for women experiencing homelessness to sleep during the day and stay up at night to protect themselves from potential nighttime attacks.
“We have people who come to [Rose Haven] in the morning and immediately fall asleep on a couch since they’ve been up all night,” O’Brien said. “The [daytime camping] ban will make it harder for women to feel safe living outside.”
Many women become homeless because they’re fleeing domestic violence. Bri Condon is the director of Bradley Angle, a nonprofit that connects people fleeing domestic violence with housing. More than 75% of calls for help the nonprofit receives comes from women experiencing homelessness after leaving their abuser. Condon said many of these women turn to public camping as a short-term solution.
“This policy will negatively affect anyone who sees public spaces as a refuge that they flee to with their children in life or death situations,” Condon said.
Condon has lived in Portland long enough to see numerous mayors pitch proposals to criminalize outdoor camping. She said she would like to see a policy that addresses the root causes of homelessness instead of a proposal to criminalize people.
“It’s challenging to understand to me what the next step is,” Condon said. “The truth is that [city leadership] doesn’t know what to do. And if you don’t know what to do, the key is to listen. Not to just march in just some direction because you think that gives someone hope.”
Wheeler said the proposed policy pairs with the city’s work to open up more shelter spaces. The city has opened two “Safe Rest Villages” — outdoor shelters consisting of tiny sleeping pods — in recent years. Combined, they offer 80 sleeping spots. A third village is set to open in North Portland shortly, and its nearly 70 pods are almost all accounted for.
The city is also expected to open an outdoor shelter that can serve up to 150 people in July, the first in a broader city council plan revealed in November to open three large outdoor encampments and eventually ban street camping altogether.
“I’ll continue to work to increase and bolster these programs while ensuring that the city has reasonable laws that can be enforced to address unsanctioned camping,” Wheeler said Thursday.
Wheeler’s staff have previously characterized a camping ban that comes with criminal penalties as the “last resort” for addressing the city’s homeless crisis. A tentative enforcement plan drafted by the mayor’s office in March suggested creating a “community board” of volunteers to meet with people living outside and offer incentives to convince them to move into a shelter. Wheeler and his staffers have repeatedly assured the public that his office will not seek to criminalize homelessness.
The proposed ban coincides with a related announcement: On Thursday, the city said it had reached a tentative settlement with people with disabilities who sued the city last September, alleging that the city violated the American with Disabilities Act by allowing tents to obstruct sidewalks. That settlement agreement requires that the city prioritize clearing homeless encampments that block sidewalks and extend a ban on city employees distributing tents.
It appears Wheeler will have the votes to approve the new policy. Commissioners Dan Ryan, Mingus Mapps, and Rene Gonzalez told OPB they support the policy change. Commissioner Carmen Rubio said she has not made a decision yet. The ordinance needs at least three votes in support to pass.
Correction: Most shelters are open 24/7, but few allow for drop-ins. A previous version of this story stated most shelters were only open at night