PORTLAND, Ore. — Early last month, a group of ten Portlanders with mobility disabilities sued the city over tents blocking the sidewalks. The lawsuit claims the city is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Federal Rehabilitation Act.
The lawyers behind the lawsuit recently found Multnomah County’s Joint Office of Homeless Services gave 6,550 tents and 27,000 tarps to people experiencing homelessness in 2021. The lawyers are now arguing those tents could be the ones making it nearly impossible for people with mobility disabilities to safely navigate the sidewalks.
The city has since responded to the lawsuit by requesting Multnomah County, Metro and the state of Oregon also be added to the case. The city's attorney did not respond to KGW by our deadline but said in an email to the lawyer leading this case: "As your lawsuit is currently presented, I believe it fails to recognize the important role and responsibility played by these other government entities, in addition to the city, in addressing this complex problem."
“First of all, this lawsuit is under the Americans With Disabilities Act,” said John DiLorenzo the attorney representing the Oregonians with mobility disabilities who filed the suit. “The 9th Circuit has made it pretty clear that sidewalks are within the ambit of the act the city has jurisdiction over sidewalks.” DiLorenzo has a history of winning lawsuits against the city of Portland dating back to 2016.
“We think the county may have foreseen [the tents] would find their way onto the sidewalks which is the very reason my clients are suing the city,” DiLorenzo said. "It places us in an awful situation where Multnomah County provides the tents which the city sweeps…go figure.”
It's not clear yet where the Joint Office got the money to buy the thousands of tents and tarps.
“It may have been federal money that was used, it may have been COVID relief money, it may have been money from the homeless tax,” said DiLorenzo.
The Joint Office, which is run by Multnomah County, told KGW in an email: "The Joint Office has put half its budget this year into expanding and strengthening its shelter system... At the same time, the homelessness services system and the Joint Office have also continued to provide safety on the streets services."
If the tents and tarps the Joint Office gave to the homeless are found to be used in ways that block ADA access, the county could also be sued.
“If we have success here, I think this model could be replicated in other west coast cities too,” DiLorenzo said.
Mayor Ted Wheeler told KGW in an email: “As Mayor, I hear the frustrations of Portlanders concerned about homelessness and livability issues—particularly self-sited campsites across the city—every day. That's why I have acted with urgency to issue numerous Emergency Declarations intended to slice through the often-well-intended bureaucracy. The Emergency Declarations on homelessness I've issued this year are showing promising results with unsanctioned encampment removals increased 2844% from September 2020 to September 2022, with a large focus on cleaning Safe Routes to Schools and those camping along high-crash corridors. Since April 11, 2022, 405 homeless Portlanders the Street Services Coordination Center engaged with utilized a shelter bed for at least one night. Homelessness continues to be my top priority and I will continue to make investments and change through a compassionate approach until we see meaningful improvements."
The city’s attorney also asked for specific locations to where these tents are that are blocking ADA access so they can clear them.