For decades, the sidewalk outside Portland City Hall has been home to a rotating population of protesters who push the limits of the city’s 32-year-old camping ban. Homeless campers stay for weeks or months to protest war, homelessness policies or the anti-camping law itself.
Last week, in the latest showdown, Mayor Charlie Hales announced that he’d had enough of campers’ bad behavior. They were harassing City Hall visitors and employees, he said, and needed to go for public safety.
But he invoked sidewalk rules that require high-pedestrian areas to be kept clear from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. — meaning campers can sleep at night and stick around during the day as long as they pack up their belongings.
That decision reignited a question: Why not enforce the city’s camping ban?
The answer: Years of legal challenges and settlements have made the burden of proof too high, said Dana Haynes, Hales’ spokesman.
“We’ve had very limited success defending the use of the camping ban in court,” Haynes said. “We have to show a person, for all intents and purposes, is inhabiting the sidewalk. If we can’t prove that, we can’t use the ban.”
Advocates for the homeless say the ordinance “criminalizes homelessness” by punishing people who have nowhere else to go. A count this year found 1,895 people sleeping on the streets in Portland; only 700 shelter beds are regularly available.
Haynes said city officials must weigh that reality and people’s First Amendment right to demonstrate against concerns with safety and access to a public building.
“One of the points of having City Hall is the right to protest,” Haynes said. “But you can’t lay down four feet of stuff and call it home.”
Since the Occupy Portland demonstrations of fall 2011, however, some protesters have done just that — even as the city uses the camping ban to clear homeless people from parks.
The early camping ban
It wasn’t always this way.
In 1990, a group of protesters camped in front of City Hall for 17 days to protest the city’s policies on homelessness.
“If they take it down, we’ll put it up again,” leader Jeffrey J. Liddicoat said at the time, according to reports in The Oregonian. “If they take us to the Justice Center Jail, when we get out, we’ll put it up again.”
Then-Mayor Bud Clark responded by calling in police to enforce the camping ban.
In 2003, anti-war protesters camped in a months-long vigil outside City Hall under then-Mayor Vera Katz. After some back and forth, Katz had police enforce the camping ban.
Then in spring 2008, a crowd that grew to about 150 over 2-1/2 weeks set up tents around City Hall to protest the sweeps of homeless camps across the city.
Mayor Tom Potter called in police to clear the protesters under the camping ban. The mayor was criticized on all fronts — for using the ordinance at all, for using it too soon and for not using it soon enough.
“I know I didn’t make anybody especially happy,” Potter said at the time, “but that’s not my job.”
Under Mayor Sam Adams, campers spent weeks in front of City Hall and at nearby Chapman and Lownsdale squares in the fall of 2011 as part of the Occupy Portland movement. Police cleared campers from the parks by enforcing the parks’ closing time. But campers have been outside City Hall, in small groups during winter and larger in summer, ever since.
Now, they say, they’re back to protesting the city’s camping ban.
“It’s a law set up to make it difficult for people who are poor and homeless,” says Ivan Scharbrough, 34, who last week packed up at 7 a.m. as required before heading off to Sisters of the Road, a homeless-outreach organization in Northwest Portland.
After a legal challenge in 2000, the city agreed not to evict campers from streets unless they had a structure. A sleeping bag was no longer enough to prove someone was camping.
Then under a settlement last August, in response to a class-action lawsuit filed in 2008, the city agreed that police would also catalog and store belongings seized at homeless camps.
Park rangers enforcement
By then, the city had essentially given up trying to enforce the ban on city streets. (The Right 2 Dream Too camp in Old Town is on private property and tangled in litigation with the city. Dignity Village has permission to use city-owned land in Northeast Portland.)
“In practice, generally, it’s not enforced as long as the camping is ‘low-impact,’ i.e. a bedroll or sleeping bag and a backpack, a small group, not blocking a sidewalk,” Portland police spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson said in an email.
It’s a different story in Portland parks. Rangers regularly use the ordinance as they patrol the city’s 11,415 acres of parkland, said Art Hendricks, security manager for Portland Parks & Recreation.
Rangers removed 984 homeless camps in 2010, then with increased patrols keeping numbers down, 684 camps in 2011 and 500 in 2012.
The homeless people they see, Hendricks said, are not activists like at City Hall. They’re generally down-and-out and need services; travelers passing through; or the chronically homeless who don’t want services.
Unlike police, rangers find camps with as many as 300 tents and evidence of long-term use. “I’ve literally seen people with a couch and a bookshelf,” Hendricks says. “It’s like walking into someone’s living room.”
Rangers offer services first, then post a notice that a camp will be cleared. Most of the time, campers are gone when rangers return. If not, they collect and catalog belongings, and clean up and repair environmental damage.
Back at City Hall, sidewalks have been mostly clear during the day since Hales announced enforcement of the sidewalk rules. But if history is any indication, that may not last long.