By Joanne Zuhl from Street Roots, May 20, 2008

Central Precinct commander says City Hall protest probably won’t change how the law is enforced

Enforcement of the city’s camping ordinance, one of the primary points of protest for demonstrators outside City Hall this month, is under review as the city updates its manuals and policies.

In his address to the protesters on May 10, Mayor Tom Potter noted that discussions on how police enforce the camping ordinance are occurring. The ordinance prohibits sleeping with any bedding matter, or other items deemed part of a camp, on public property, punishable by a $100 fine or 30 days in jail. It is the mechanism commonly used for sweeping out homeless campsites and one of the key complaints behind the protest in front of City Hall. Several of the protesters reported that they are routinely rousted, often with a kick from authorities, and forced to find another place to be.

“The cumulative effect of the city’s anti-camping policies is to move people around when they have nowhere to go,” says Monica Goracke, co-chair of the Street Access for Everyone, or SAFE oversight committee, and a lawyer with the Oregon Law Center. “Many people who want to move inside are instead charged with violations and crimes, or excluded from parks. There is neither enough shelter nor housing for all the homeless people in Portland, many of whom have lived here for years. I would like to see the city increase funding for proven effective tactics to get people off the street like housing first, flexible rent assistance and more outreach workers, rather than enforce laws that do nothing to end and only exacerbate the problem of homelessness.”

Goracke is working with the city in reviewing the enforcement procedures for the ordinance.

Central Precinct Commander Mike Reese said updating the enforcement policies could change how police interact with people on the streets who are sleeping outside, however, “I would expect the next policy to be very similar to the current policy,” he said. He also said the City Hall protest probably won’t significantly influence how the policy is modified.

“I think we already have a policy that is very compassionate,” Reese said, outlining procedures for notifying social-service agencies, posting the camping violation notice in advance and giving people time to relocate their belongings. Reese said he hasn’t seen any potential changes to date.

In November, Goracke issued a letter to city attorney Linda Meng calling for the city to halt the enforcement of ordinances that prohibit homeless people from sleeping outside in Portland. The request was made on behalf of homeless individuals who are seeking relief, potentially through a class-action lawsuit, from being “moved along, excluded from parks and cited for camping and trespassing” by police officers.

The letter states that in the city should stop practices that, in the absence of sufficient resources for those in need, “have made criminal the status of being poor and homeless.”

Goracke says her clients would be amenable to discussing a solution to the situation, and uses as an example a case in Los Angeles that was settled when the city agreed to not enforce a similar ordinance between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. until an additional 1,250 units of permanent supportive housing were constructed in the city.

At the May 8 SAFE oversight committee meeting, several committee members noted that the fines levied against poor or homeless people cited under the camping, sit-lie and trespassing ordinances can become a barrier to getting into housing. The debt, if left unpaid, can damage a person’s credit record, which can derail a person’s hope of signing a lease regardless of agency support. The fines are typically levied when people fail to appear in court on their violations, and that fail-to-appear rate is about 100 percent, said SAFE oversight committee member Laurie Abraham, a Multnomah County district attorney.

Committee member Doreen Binder, executive director of the housing program Transition Projects Inc., called the fine situation counterproductive. “It’s standing in the way of what we want to be doing,” Binder said.

Goracke said the problem goes beyond the sit-lie ordinance, which was instituted through the SAFE committee in August, and is a point that will be taken up with Circuit Court.

“It’s not just fines from this ordinance that are causing the problem,” Goracke said. “That’s why I am hoping to open the discussion to the question of how court fines in general are causing the barriers.”