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Daytime camping ban draws strident testimony during hours-long Portland City Council session

Camping on public property would be prohibited between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. every day, alongside permanent bans around places like schools and shelters.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland City Council took public testimony Wednesday on a proposal from Mayor Ted Wheeler to ban homeless camps on public property during daytime hours.

As testimony began, Wheeler said that 176 people had signed up to speak for their allotted 2 minutes. The hearing was expected to last six hours, with a vote on the ordinance set for a later session.

Speakers see-sawed back and forth between those for and against the ordinance — punctuated by cheers, jeers, applause and peals of laughter from a boisterous crowd, drawing repeated warnings from Wheeler that he would switch the meeting to a virtual format if the interruptions continued.

Arguments in favor of the ordinance listed off the public safety issues that have accompanied homeless camps; talking about the accumulation of trash, discarded needles and human excrement, along with repeated break-ins and other types of crime.

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"For years we've had major problems with the street camping around us. We've lost numerous people from our team ... because they didn't want to come to work or live around the extreme camping, drugs and filth that's around us," said Aaron Watzig, owner of West Side Electric in Portland's Central Eastside, who was invited testimony for Commissioner Dan Ryan.

"I've had personal conversations with the people around here, the people who are living in these camps, trying to help them, to see if they need help," Watzig continued. "I found one gentleman a job and a place to stay to get him out of this situation because it seemed he wanted that — he did not want help, he just moved his camp over a little bit and continued to do what he was doing."

More and more of the testimony came in opposition to the camping ban as the session wore on. Representatives from groups like Sisters of the Road and Street Roots railed against the ordinance. A similar refrain came up repeatedly during the comments in opposition: Where are people going to go? And if there are places to go during those daylight hours, how are they to know about them?

"It is not reasonable to expect people to pack up and disappear every morning when they have nowhere to go," testified Ed Johnson, director of litigation at the Oregon Law Center. "It is not reasonable to expect people to understand the incomprehensible list of places they cannot camp when there is no list or map or information about where they can camp."

For several organizations that provide services to homeless people during the day, including Blanchet House and Rose Haven, representatives testified that a ban like this would push their already-stressed resources to the breaking point. They argued that, if the ban is put into effect, they will need help from the city to meet the mounting need.

Related: Portland City Council accepts settlement in ADA lawsuit over sidewalk camping

As proposed by Wheeler, the ordinance would prohibit homeless people from camping on city property between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. — requiring that tents and other belongings be dismantled and removed by those daytime hours.

The ordinance would also impose permanent bans on camping in a "pedestrian use zone," within 250 feet of schools or childcare centers, in the public right-of-way along city-designated high crash corridors and around city parks, including city-sponsored shelter sites.

Gas heaters in campsites would likewise be banned at all times, along with obstruction of access to a private property or business next to a public right-of-way, damage to the environment and accumulation of garbage.

Under the ordinance, the Portland Police Bureau could issue citations for violations. The first and second violations — which must be separated by at least 24 hours — would earn written warnings. The third and subsequent violations could result in a fine of $100 or less, jail time of 30 days or less, or both.

What isn't clear is how rigidly the violations would be enforced. Portland has, in the past, banned camping in high crash corridors and along school routes, but enforcement has historically been uneven.

Wheeler's office shaped the ordinance around a 2021 Oregon law, House Bill 3115, that aligned the state with an influential court ruling concerned with camping bans, Martin v. City of Boise.

The court case, and Oregon's law, functionally prohibit local governments from enacting total bans on homeless camps when there is not adequate shelter space available. Instead, cities can impose "reasonable" time, place and manner restrictions — leaving open the ability for people to sleep on public property when other options aren't available.

However, the framing of Wheeler's proposed ordinance is somewhat misleading. It is pitched as an update to Portland's restrictions in order to comply with Oregon law. However, the state law does not require a daytime camping ban, it only requires that city ordinances governing camping on public property be in compliance with HB 3115's assessment of reasonable time, place and manner restrictions by July 1, 2023.

The daytime ban is seen as a first step in another plan that Wheeler announced last year to develop six sanctioned mass camping sites and then phase in a total ban on camping everywhere else in the city. None of the site have opened yet, although Wheeler's office released some details about the first planned site earlier this year.

Ahead of Wednesday's testimony, Commissioner Carmen Rubio proposed an amendment to the ordinance that would delay the date of implementation to the date that the second sanctioned camp site opens — giving homeless services providers time to prepare and providing homeless people impacted by the ordinance with more options on where to go.

But Rubio's proposal went over like a lead balloon. No other commissioners appeared willing to second her motion, until Wheeler — who made clear that he opposed it — seconded it "for discussion purposes."

During the brief exchange surrounding Rubio's proposal, Wheeler indicated that the first of these sanctioned sites is expected to open in July, with a staffer saying that the second site could open this coming fall.

Earlier in the day, the city council agreed to settle with plaintiffs who sued Portland over violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act for failing to keep sidewalks clear of homeless camps. While entirely separate from the daytime camping ban, the settlement does include requirements that Portland work consistently to keep sidewalks clear of camps — something that is supported by the camping ban ordinance.

This is a developing story and will be updated with more details as they emerge.

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