With their expected approval on Wednesday, City Council will seal the deal on a four-year lawsuit against the city’s anti-camping ordinance and its impact on homeless people.
It’s been months since the city announced an camping lawsuit had been reached, but the city only released the terms of the agreement this weekend. The case had been pending in federal court since 2008.
The plaintiffs — all homeless men and women at the time — sued the city for property damage and civil rights violations by the Portland Police Bureau. They were represented by the Oregon Law Center. The monetary terms are inconsequential: the city has agreed to pay $3,200 in damages among the nine plaintiffs. In lieu of attorney fees, the city will pay $37,000 to the Portland Housing Bureau to fund rental assistance programs.
The significant impact of the settlement comes in the non-monetary terms, which expands the definition of an established camp, extending certain protections to the property and people in sleeping bags or sleeping outdoors.
Monica Goracke, the attorney with the center who worked on the case, says that while there is some progress made with the settlement, the changes in police behavior and interaction with people actually have been occurring over the life of the lawsuit.
“As we worked on the case over the past four years, the city realized it needed to change some aspects of how they were enforcing these ordinance. The change happened, I think in part, because of the lawsuit. Instead of enforcing without warning, they could maintain better relationship with people on the streets in ways that didn’t lead to people getting citations and fines that they could never pay that keep them in homelessness longer.”
In a statement released minutes ago by the city, Mayor Sam Adams said the city’s work to prevent and end homelessness is ongoing.
“This agreement is a step forward to improve relations between individuals experiencing homelessness and officers enforcing the law,” Adams said in the statement.
Goracke said that when the case was filed, she heard many more complaints from people saying police had taken their property without warning and given them citations for erecting a structure on the sidewalk. “I haven’t heard complaints like that in a while.”
“There’s a long way to go,” Goracke concedes. “This settlement marks an improvement in the city’s treatment of homeless people, but the reality is that there are still a lot of people out there, and the fact that they are cited for sleeping outside is still a reality. The city needs to keep improving its policies. Hopefully, one day, they’re won’t be criminal penalties for behavior that is life-sustaining.”
More than 2,700 people were sleeping in shelters or on the street in the city/county one-night count in 2011. The city and Multnomah County estimate that the true number of homeless people, including those sleeping outside, in shelters or doubled up in someone else’s home, is about 15,000 people.
Filed under: Street Roots