A newly released ACLU of Oregon report, “Decriminalizing Homelessness: Why Right to Rest Legislation is the High Road For Oregon,” finds that there is an entire legal infrastructure in Oregon that makes basic survival in public spaces illegal.
The report analyzed local laws in 69 communities and cities throughout Oregon with populations above 5,000 and found that there are 225 laws that create clear barriers to life-sustaining activities and legalize unfair and harmful treatment of people experiencing homelessness.
The report outlines that beyond the approximately 125 laws that outlaw some form of sleeping in public spaces throughout Oregon, restrictions extend to those who have security of a car, bus, trailer or RV. Thirty-one cities in Oregon restrict sleeping in one’s vehicle even if it’s in a normal parking place and posing no safety hazard.
There are 11 communities in Oregon that ban panhandling, and another 48 communities and two counties have laws against sleeping or sitting on sidewalks.
Anti-homeless or poor laws have existed for centuries. Oregon is no different. It used to be illegal to live in idleness or without employment or having no visible means of support in Oregon. In many ways, not a lot has changed.
The reality is if you’re homeless in many communities throughout Oregon, you’re driven into urban environments. For one, there are little to no services available in many of rural or suburban communities. Secondly, as the report clearly outlines, if you’re homeless, you’re clearly not welcome.
FURTHER READING: Hateful acts against the homeless and the need to go big on housing (Director's Desk)
The times are a changing in Portland, or are they? For nearly 40 years of modern-day homelessness, Portland has grappled with how to handle homelessness through a public-safety lens. We’ve covered all of the bases in that time — from a more lenient harm-reduction approach to the flat-out criminalization of the people on the streets through sidewalk laws and heavy enforcement.
I like to remind people that it’s not that there are more homeless people in our neighborhoods than anytime over the past couple of decades. It’s simply that our neighborhoods have changed.
The Pearl and the inner Eastside of Portland used to be areas of town that people experiencing homelessness could bed down. The Pearl was an empty warehouse district, and the inner Eastside had not yet seen development. Today, both of those neighborhoods are off limits. More so, Old Town is gentrifying rapidly.
The result is tent camping that is dispersed throughout the city. Our parks that have become a last refuge.
The mayor has said that he’s not for tent camping, but the reality is there’s not a lot the police and the city can do about it. After all, we are experiencing a housing crisis and are on the verge of facing massive funding cuts by both the state and federal government.
While creating more and more shelter beds is costly, enforcing laws that make homelessness illegal is even more costly.
Advocates and city officials should avoid going back to an era where fighting over these laws was commonplace. We should all be working toward affordable housing and leveraging resources to support people having a safe place to call home. A fight over criminalization in Portland would be disastrous and one that I wouldn’t look forward to having.
The reality is Portland is working to thread the needle. It’s not perfect, but we’re trying to find the right balance.
Unfortunately, the Right to Rest Act (House Bill 2215) will not get a chance in Oregon. In spite of an unprecedented seven co-sponsors, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Representative Jeff Barker has confirmed he will not schedule House Bill 2215 for a hearing, prior to the deadline for a vote, in the assembly Judiciary Committee.
The Right to Rest Act sought to end the criminalization of rest and accompanying violations of basic human and civil rights for all people. This legislation would have protected the following rights and prohibit the enforcement of any local laws that violate these rights:
- Right to move freely, rest, sleep and be protected in a public space.
- Right to rest in public spaces and protect one self from the elements in a non-obstructive manner.
- Right to reasonable expectation of privacy of your property in public spaces.
- Right to occupy a legally parked vehicle.
- Right to share food and eat in public.
Of course, in a time when the poor are demonized for being poor and the homeless are increasingly seen more as a burden than human beings or Oregonians, it’s not surprising.
“At the end of the day, this bill deserved a hearing,” said Paul Boden, director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project. “The practice of law enforcement targeting people experiencing homelessness has to be stopped. These laws have to become a part of the past. People’s lives are depending on it.”
It’s true. People’s lives are depending on it.
In a time when our community can’t provide affordable housing, mental health services and stability for its own residents, the idea of criminalizing people that fall through the safety net seems cruel. And it is. It’s downright cruel.
Israel Bayer is the executive director of Street Roots. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @israelbayer.