Anti-Camping law struck down; Homeless organize for autonomy

Police harassment, intimidation, and brutality toward the homeless were dealt a legal setback in September. The situation on the streets hasn't actually improved, though, and homeless activists are organizing a tent city to make visible their commitment to protecting their human rights.

Portland's Anti-Camping Ordinance made it a crime to possess a sleeping bag, bedding, or stove while sitting or lying anywhere in the city. It also criminalized sleeping in cars, tents and other non-house structures. Homeless people and their advocates have long held that the law was unjust, unconstitutional, and a pretext for massive police misconduct against the homeless.

Multnomah County Judge Stephen Gallagher ruled on September 27 that the Anti-Camping Ordinance unconstitutionally punished the status of being homeless and interfered with fundamental rights of travel and participating in social life. The ruling strongly lambastes the City's misplaced priorities: "Rather than slapping a person with a citation for maintaining life in a public place, the City could first explore avenues of providing sufficient housing for all individuals."

Mayor Vera Katz is encouraging the City to appeal the ruling. In contrast to Judge Gallagher's surprisingly accurate understanding of homeless life, Katz's response to the ruling emphasized the importance of maintaining public safety in the face of what she sees as anti- social, law-breaking homeless people: "Many of [the homeless] just don't choose to stay in a place with a roof over their head. They want to be outside, they want to continue drinking, or taking drugs and not playing by the rules that are imposed in shelters" (street roots October 2000).

Despite the legal importance of the ruling, police continue to threaten homeless people in Old Town and elsewhere. None of the homeless folks that Copwatch spoke with thought that the police were treating them any more fairly since Gallagher's ruling. Several claimed that police harassment and enforcement of the camping ban had actually increased in defiance of the ruling. Officers are reportedly telling people who they cite for camping that the ruling is not going to affect business as usual. Several people have reported their sleeping bags slashed by abusive officers.

Faced with this reality, Portland's top-notch homeless newspaper street roots has begun a campaign to institute a legally sanctioned tent city, on the model of similar projects organized by the homeless in Seattle, Los Angeles, India, South Africa and Brazil. Jack Tafari of street roots points out that a sanctioned tent city run by the homeless themselves would provide a safe haven to store belongings, bathe, and take care of other necessities that currently require every effort of the homeless. With these needs taken care of collectively, homeless folks would be free to pursue jobs, housing, services, and a productive social life.

To get involved or for more information, contact street roots at 503-228-5657.

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