Portland City Council approved a new policy that criminalizes homeless camping Wednesday.
The ordinance bans camping on public property from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and introduces stricter rules on camping during all other hours.
“These reasonable restrictions are a step in the right direction towards a revitalized Portland,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said before voting Wednesday.
The proposal, introduced by Wheeler, drew impassioned feedback from Portlanders at a lengthy council meeting last week. Business owners said the ban could attract customers currently deterred by sidewalk encampments and may deter new businesses from moving to Portland. Their support was echoed by others who said they felt unsafe living near encampments.
Opponents, including people currently experiencing homelessness, said the proposal sets unrealistic expectations on people who may struggle to pack up, carry and secure their belongings during the daytime. Civil rights attorneys warned city commissioners that the policy may open the city to legal challenges, as it might violate both state and federal law.
Portland already prohibits camping on public property outright, but city attorneys say this rule needs an update as it’s likely in violation of a new Oregon law. House Bill 3115, which passed the Legislature in 2021, requires cities make “objectively reasonable” rules about when, where and how people can sit and lie outdoors on public property. By allowing people to camp during some hours — 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. — city attorneys believe the new rule will meet that “objectively reasonable” requirement.
While the policy allows for public camping during the night, it comes with new limitations. The rule bans nighttime camping in parks, on public docks, along riverbanks, near busy streets, or in areas within 250 feet of a school or city-sanctioned homeless village. It also prohibits blocking an entire sidewalk with a tent. The city has not shared any information with the public about where someone can legally set up a tent between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.
The policy also limits what people can do at their camping spot. People sleeping outside cannot build a fire, use a gas heater, build temporary structures, litter, or dig into the ground at their camping location. They’re also prohibited from disassembling or selling more than three bikes or more than two cars — a rule meant to address the number of chop shops associated with homeless encampments across the city.
If people violate any of these new rules twice, they will be given a written warning from a Portland police officer. If they violate the camping policy three times, police can fine them up to $100 or sentence them to jail for up to 30 days.
According to Wheeler, the ban will not be immediately enforced once it’s effective next month. He said penalties will be “phased in” after city outreach workers spend time educating people experiencing homelessness about the new rule. The mayor’s office does not have a timeline for when that phasing in process will end and enforcement will begin.
Commissioner Carmen Rubio was the only member of council to vote against the policy.
“This council had a public discussion last year about our values related to camping bans … and we committed to exclude any provisions that would criminalize people solely for being homeless,” Rubio said. “It’s not clear to me at this time if this ordinance maintains that commitment.”
Last week, Rubio proposed an amendment to the ordinance that would have paused the fines and jail time associated with the policy until the city has enough shelter beds available for all unhoused Portlanders.
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, nearly 4,000 people were estimated to be sleeping unsheltered in the county on a given night.
Rubio cast the only vote in support of her amendment, which failed.
HB 3115 was championed by then-House Speaker Tina Kotek, two years before she entered the governor’s office. Kotek has not said whether or not she supports Portland’s ban. In an email sent to OPB last week, Kotek’s staff wrote that the governor supported Rubio’s amendment to “limit the [ban’s] enforcement mechanisms until sufficient shelter capacity, including day center capacity, is provided for people who will be impacted and have nowhere else to go.”
Portland is in the process of opening several large outdoor homeless encampments that can accommodate up to 250 people each. The first camp, composed of 140 sleeping pods, is set to open in Southeast Portland next month. The second is expected to open at an unknown location by the end of the year.
Rubio said she would have preferred the city wait to allow more shelters to open, to train police on the new rules, and inform people experiencing homelessness on where they can legally camp before passing the ban.
“This seems like a unilateral action by the city instead of in partnership with others,” Rubio said before voting in opposition.
Other commissioners thought the policy didn’t go far enough. Commissioner Rene Gonzalez said he had considered introducing amendments that increased the allowed distance between schools and overnight encampments. But he said Wednesday that there wasn’t “sufficient political support” on council for that idea.
“I had hoped to strengthen the mayor’s proposal, but we’re not going to let perfect be the enemy of the good,” Gonzalez said. “This is a step forward.”
Gonzalez, Wheeler and Commissioner Dan Ryan voted to approve the ban.
Commissioner Mingus Mapps was absent for the vote due to previously scheduled travel plans. Yet he shared a statement to be read aloud at council signaling his support of the policy.
“I see this ordinance not as an end but as a beginning,” Mapps said. “Portlanders are compassionate people and want folks to transition off the streets into programs and solutions that work.”