Jun 7, 2023 - Politics

Broad Portland camping ban up for City Council vote

A screenshot of the broadcast of public meeting with elected officials on a dais in the back and a man in a tie-dyed t-shirt standing and addressing them with one hand on his hip. A red countdown clock shows the speaker has run out of time.

Nearly 100 people testified at last week's City Council hearing on the camping ban.

After hearing five hours of public comment last week, the Portland City Council is scheduled to vote Wednesday on a proposed policy that would significantly change the city's approach to unsheltered people living on the streets.

Why it matters: The proposal — which would ban camping during the day and restrict it to certain locations at night — ignited passionate testimony that highlights Portlanders' core beliefs about government and compassion, and a profound sense of failure of the city.

Catch up fast: The ordinance would forbid all camping on city property between 8am and 8pm, plus overnight camping near schools, shelters and certain busy streets, on docks or in parks, among other restrictions.

  • No fires or gas heaters would be allowed at campsites.
  • After two warnings, police could fine or arrest a person for violating the policy.

The city received nearly 400 written comments on the proposal and nearly 100 people spoke at last week's hearing.

What they're saying: "What the city has allowed is particularly not fair to the houseless community as an addiction pandemic ravages our city," Jessica Shellhorn, who supports the proposal, told council members.

  • Shellhorn said her niece was found dead last year in a tent under the Steel Bridge. She told the council that children should not see people injecting drugs on the street or — like her son — want to hurry inside after a family barbecue because they don't feel safe in their own yard.

Yes, but: Resident Sara Rudolph, who opposes the measure, responded that children who are homeless are probably more in danger than children having barbecues in the backyard, a comment that drew applause from the audience in the council chambers.

  • She said it was "very disappointing" for Portland to return to police-enforced camping bans. "What if we put the money into treatment options, the behavioral and mental health options that we were promised?" she asked.

Context: Portlanders who prioritize care for the vulnerable feel cheated by elected leaders, as do Portlanders who prioritize clean streets and feeling safe, says Amaury Vogel, associate executive director of the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center, which conducts regular opinion surveys on current issues.

  • "The messaging has pitted the basic needs and survival of one group against another," Vogel told Axios.
  • "The issue is not a theoretical one," Tim Johnson, a Portland resident who directs Willamette University's Center for Governance and Public Policy Research, told Axios. "Portlanders have neighbors who do not have housing and they also have neighbors whose day-to-day lives are affected by individuals who do not have housing."

Between the lines: Many critics, including people experiencing homelessness right now, said unsheltered people can't simply disappear, and they fear the proposed rules will make it harder to survive.

  • Supporters hope that enforcement will create a path toward help and housing.

Of note: Last week, City Commissioner Carmen Rubio suggested delaying the policy until at least two city-run mass shelter sites are open, anticipated in October. The other four council members rejected her amendment.

What we're watching: ACLU Oregon and the Oregon Law Center told the council the proposed ordinance likely violates state law and the U.S. Constitution, and that the city is risking lawsuits should it go through.


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