People's Police Report
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Class Action Lawsuit Challenges Portland's Anti-Camping Ordinance
A class action lawsuit filed by the Oregon Law Center (OLC) in Federal District Court in Portland in December challenges Portland's anti-camping ordinance as unconstitutional (PPR #46). OLC, a nonprofit legal aid organization, filed the suit on behalf of four named individuals who are homeless, and "all others similarly situated." The suit names as defendants the City of Portland, Police Chief Rosie Sizer, two police officers who enforced the ordinance, and 50 unnamed police officers listed as John Does 1-50.
Portland's anti-camping ordinance (Portland City Code 14A.50.020) makes it unlawful to "camp" or set up a "campsite" on public property or public right of way without a permit. By targeting people sleeping and setting up campsites on public property, it is designed to go after homeless people. The ordinance has a maximum fine of $100 and maximum jail sentence of 30 days.
The lawsuit asserts that the ordinance violates the constitutional rights of the homeless, specifically the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment" and the Fourteenth Amendment's protections to a right to travel, freedom of movement, personal liberty, and equal protection. In a case decided in Los Angeles in April, 2006, the court declared an anti- camping law there constituted cruel and unusual punishment so long as there were not enough shelter beds for the people staying on the street. The Portland suit seeks to invalidate the local ordinance and obtain damages.
According to the complaint, one of the homeless plaintiffs cannot stay in women's shelters because of her medical condition where she suffers frequent seizures from a brain injury. The city estimates that approximately 4,000 people sleep outside or in shelters each night (Oregonian, December 12).
In April 2008, Portland police rousted several homeless people sleeping under downtown bridges. According to the police, the raids occurred after receiving complaints of fights. Central Precinct Commander Mike Reese told the Portland Tribune (December 11) that the police cite people for violating the ordinance only "a handful" of times a year. Last May, dozens of advocates for the homeless protested in front of City Hall by camping for several days on the sidewalk. The police eventually removed the protesters (PPR #45). The city has since opened some new shelters, but demand for beds still surpasses the number of available beds.
City Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees Portland's housing programs and homeless services, told the Tribune that prior to the lawsuit the City had been in negotiations about possibly modifying the anti-camping ordinance.
A 2006 report from the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found that laws that criminalize homelessness do not address the underlying causes of homelessness, but only exacerbate the problem. Such laws "frequently move people away from services. When homeless persons are arrested and charged under these measures, they develop a criminal record, making it more difficult to obtain employment or housing." Providing shelter space is less expensive than jailing someone (Oregonian, February 1).
Portland Copwatch is a grassroots, volunteer organization promoting police accountability through citizen action.