Homeless people in Portland, Oregon have finally received much needed
relief. For nineteen years Portland's Anti-Camping Ordinance made it
criminal to sleep outdoors—in public, on private property, or in vehicles.
The ordinance was ruled unconstitutional on September 27 by Multnomah County
Judge Stephen Gallagher, who felt it was cruel and unusual punishment.
Judge Gallagher found the ordinance to be in violation of the United States Constitution because those without homes are punished for the status of being homeless. The ordinance was also found to be in violation of equal protection and the fundamental right to travel by denying homeless people the opportunity to possess their belongings with them while traveling throughout the city.
The case was brought by the State of Oregon against Norman Wickes, Sr. and his son, Norman Wickes, Jr., who had been living in their vehicle, parked nightly at various locations in Portland to sleep. Portland police had, over a short period of time, given the Wickes over forty citations for camping in their vehicle. Interestingly, it would have been legal for the Wickes to sleep in their truck had they had a home to live in. This disparity is one of the issues that made Judge Gallagherıs ruling possible.
Judge Gallagher spoke eloquently and thoughtfully on behalf of homeless people. Demonstrating a keen knowledge of the issues faced by homeless people in their daily struggle to survive, Judge Gallagher offered a point by point explanation for his ruling.
In response to the question whether enforcement of the ordinance constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, and is therefore unconstitutional under the Oregon and United States Constitutions, Judge Gallagher wrote, "The court finds it impossible to separate the fact of being homeless from the necessary 'acts' that go with it, such as sleeping. The act of sleeping or eating in a shelter away from the elements cannot be considered intentional, avoidable conduct. This conduct is ordinary activity required to sustain life. Due to the fact that they are homeless, persons seek out shelter to perform these daily routines. Yet the City considers this location to be a campsite if the homeless person maintains any bedding. The homeless are being punished for behavior indistinquishable from the mere fact that they are homeless. Therefore, those without homes are being punished for the status of being homeless...This court does not accept the notion that the life decisions of an individual, albeit seemingly voluntary decisions, necessarily deprive that person of the status of being homeless."
Judge Gallagher also found that the ordinance burdens homeless people's fundamental right to travel. "The homeless carry their belongings with them or store them in a location to which they have access. Those belongings necessarily include the tools required to participate in the basic necessities of lifebedding for sleeping and a stove for food preparation. If a homeless person is traveling through our city, or traveling within our city looking for work and a permanent place to reside, he is not allowed to remain in his vehicle or lean-to without being in violation of the ordinance. By denying defendants the ability to partake in simple necessities of life, the ordinance restricts their freedom of movement. Homeless choosing to travel through our city are not allowed to stop without being in violation. Those homeless who are trying to make a life in the city are in constant violation."
In response to the City's argument that homeless people camping pose health and safety dangers, Judge Gallagher argued, "Although protecting the health and safety of the citizens of this city may very well be compelling, there are less restrictive means to address the problem. The Wickes found themselves living out of their car due to their inability to find adequate and affordable housing. Rather than slapping a homeless person with a citation for maintaining life in a public place, the city could first explore avenues of providing sufficient housing for all individuals. Adequate services should also be in place to help individuals find housing and jobs...There are a great number of alternatives regarding housing, job training, mental health services, etc., that should be put in place to both minimize the effect of homelessness, and eliminate homelessness altogether, before our city resorts to arresting individuals for sleeping and eating in the only locations available to them."
Judge Gallagher concluded, "Individuals without a home must carry what belongings are necessary to survive, such as bedding and food, with them at all times, or store them in a place to which they have access. The place where these belongings are kept is by law deemed to be a campsite. Every time a homeless person remains at that location, he is in violation...Those without homes are impermissibly punished for the status of being homeless. Performing such life sustaining acts as sleeping with bedding is a necessary action for someone without a home. This act of sleeping is not conduct that can be separated from the fact of the individual's status of being homeless. Portland's anti-camping ordinance punishes the status of being homeless."
Understandably, Mr. Wickes Sr. responded to Judge Gallagher's ruling with elation. "It was absolutely necessary to get that mean-spirited law overturned. Donıt stereotype those who are homeless. I wanted to do it the right way. I choose not to commit crimes to resolve my situation. I hung on. A lot of people get worn out-I was on the verge of being worn out, but I endured and prayed. My son and I—we have moxy. I would suggest Mayor Vera Katz be homeless for two or three months to see what it feels like to not be able to bathe when you need to, change your clothes, go to the restroom, or any of the normal things that everybody takes for granted. Being homeless is not a crime, and it's demeaning to the police who are forced to spend time they could use to fight real crime to roust homeless people. Mayor Vera Katz needs to leave it alone and accept the defeat. This country was founded by people who camped and now we're too good for that. Judge Gallagher made the right decision."
With the help of Northwest Pilot Projects, JOIN, and the generosity of Durham Construction Co., Mr. Wickes, Sr. and his son are now housed. Wickes, Jr. is now attending school, where he is studying computer technology in a special program that will be followed by a new job in the local computer industry. Expressing his relief, Mr. Wickes commented, "You know what I did last night? I took a bubble bath—just because I could. It felt great!"
Mayor Vera Katz responded with frustration to Judge Gallagher's ruling, promising to use other violations to continue the Cityıs efforts to keep homeless people off the streets. Some of the violations often used to keep homeless people on the move are trespassing, loitering, and public nuisance. An increase in these kinds of violations could be expected if Mayor Katz's strategy is put into effect. Mayor Katz hopes that the District Attorney will appeal the decision, and that the ordinance can continue to be enforced until the case is heard again—a process that may take as long as a year.
The decision of some homeless people to remain living outdoors, when examined more closely, is not a decision to be homeless, but rather a decision to stop head-butting the brick wall of barriers to obtaining a home in a housing market that has no mercy. This ruling may mean the dissolution of some of those barriers. Social service workers who help homeless people find housing are hoping this will mean that their clients' criminal records will be cleared of anti-camping violations—ironically, one of the many barriers to obtaining housing for their clients.
Housing landscape harsh for the poorWith one of the highest rent averages in the nation, Portland is an inhospitable landscape to people living on fixed incomes or earning low wages. According to the June 1999 Multi-Family Market Report by Norris, Beggs and Simpson, the average rent for a unit in the Portland-Vancouver Metropolitan Area ranges between $631-$1,054 a monthwell out of reach of disabled people and seniors living on General Assistance benefits of $304 a month or Social Security Insurance of $515 a month and leaves little left over for forgotten veterans living on pensions of $731 a month. Rent at even the lower end of that range is a heavy burden on the $1,040 a month earned, before taxes, by a single parent working full-time at minimum wage. This is one reason so many Oregon households are food-challenged, as reported by street roots in November, 1999.
Examination of the limited amount of available information demonstrates that there are at minimum four thousand homeless people in Portland and probably a lot more. The nature of homelessnessno stable place where a person can be found and countedmakes it difficult to enumerate. What is clear is that many are forced by necessity to live on the streets, in cars and vans, doubled up with friends or family, or in dangerous situations for lack of alternatives. Many of these people are disabled, elderly, children and youth, veterans, mentally ill, have criminal or eviction records, or are people who face overwhelming barriers to finding permanent affordable housing in an ever-tightening housing market.
For most, there are no beds available in Portland area shelters. The night Norman Wickes and his son were sited with the ticket that landed them in court, it was 28 degrees outside and all the shelters were full. Even a roach infested flop-house in downtown Portland requires background checks of five or more years for criminal, rental, credit, and eviction historyıs. The difficulties of obtaining housing leave many homeless people embittered and hopeless.
Despite promises made by the City Council in 1988 to protect the low-income, affordable housing stock in downtown Portland, the supply has shrunk by over 26% in the last ten years according to the "1999 Downtown Portland Affordable Housing Inventory" produced annually by Northwest Pilot Project. Conversion to commercial use, demolition, fire, abandonment, or upgrading to expensive housing are listed as the cause of these losses.
The City has failed to respond adequately despite the current economic boom and strong local growth and development in other areas. In the reportıs foreward, Susan Emmons, Director of Northwest Pilot Projects concludes, "We have no general preservation program, we have no funding strategy, and we have no roadmap to get back to the affordable housing levels of 21 years ago.
"Eleven years ago, we made a serious commitment. What are we doing to re-achieve our own 1978 level of housing affordable to the poor downtown?
"The City must become bolder: we must try various housing preservation and development measures, even if they be controversial, and we must raise additional housing funds. Now is the time for courageous leadership on the part of City Council; now is the time to take our own goals seriously."
It's clear that Judge Gallagher was listening, even if the City wasn't.
Beginning in the November issue of street roots, we will be publishing
articles by local housing advocates. If you are interested in helping work
for better housing opportunities and learning more about the issues, please
be sure to check-out this informative series.|
Many thanks go out to the homeless and formerly homeless crew at street roots who assisted me in the production of this article. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.