You snooze, you lose

By Joshua Cinelli
Staff writer

Dormant for a spell, the effort to repeal the anti-camping ordinance in Portland has resurfaced with renewed vigor and fresh tactics.

The movement titled "Right to Sleep" has strong support in the homeless advocacy community that witnesses the suppression of constitutional rights involving the right to travel and the freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. The campaign is being lead by crossroads, the advocacy organization developed by the Sisters of the Road Cafe, with the support of street roots, SAFES and individuals in the homeless movement.

Just as the Out of the Doorways campaign blossomed into what is now Dignity Village, the Right to Sleep campaign hopes to establish common decency along all lines and bring to the attention of the citizens, the government and the business people that homelessness is not a crime. Organizers say that repealing the camping ban is the first step toward realizing this truth, and then issues surrounding the causes of homelessness and developing a strategic response can be addressed.

"If you make it illegal to live in the city and illegal for them to sleep, then homeless have the decision of becoming criminals or leaving town. said Marc Jolin of the Oregon Law Center. "This is legislation that punishes the homeless."

On June 25, crossroads will conduct a sleeping- bag giveaway at 9 a.m. at City Hall. Those interested may address the City Council at 9:30 a.m. about the ban.

The ordinance as it stands makes a crime of life-sustaining conduct, the campaign organizers say. Such activities, as ruled by the U.S. District Court, include bathing, relieving themselves, sleeping and trying to keep warm.

City officials have defended the ordinance. The emergency shelter capacity, with fewer than 400 beds, meets less than 15 percent of the houseless population.

"The camping ban has to be brought to light during the early stages of the city's 10-year plan to end homelessness," said Israel Bayer, creative director at street roots. "Decriminalizing homelessness should be considered part of the solution to start placing people in permanent housing. Even if the city isn't giving out actual fines or tickets on the anti-camping ordinance, they are using it to shuffle homeless people around the city when all they're trying to do is get a night's sleep. People become sleep-deprived, and that only makes it harder to jump through the system's hoops just to survive. When you're tired, you're not on. Nobody else is openly challenging this right now, and we feel that a seed has to be planted. We feel that as a voice of the homeless, it is our mission to bring this inhumane ordinance to its end."

In 2000, Judge Stephen Gallagher concluded that the anti-camping ordinance in the case of Wicks vs. Oregon was unconstitutional and wrote in his ruling, "The homeless are being punished for behavior indistinguishable from the mere fact that they are homeless."

The case centered on the Wicks -- a man and his son -- who had been living out of their truck. The court found it impossible to separate the fact of being homeless from the necessary acts that go with it, such as sleeping. The ordinance was also found to be in violation of equal protection and the fundamental right to travel.

Dave Mazza, editor of the activist publication the Portland Alliance, said other cities besides Portland have introduced draconian methods to push people off the street to hide the unseemly sights of capitalism. Mazza recalled a time in the early 1980s, around the time that the anti-camping ordinance was passed, when the city installed water sprinklers in the building overhangs to wet the sidewalks and keep the area in front of the stores free from undesirables.

"At the core of it, the city places priority on the Portland Business Alliance over the citizens of the city," Mazza said.

Since the Gallagher ruling, the anti-camping ordinance has been issued sparingly and those who have been cited have the opportunity to do community service or challenge it and risk paying a $100 fine. More often, the police are using other methods of removing homeless from public areas, such as trespassing citations, drug-free zone exclusions and sweeps in the early hours of the morning.

The senior Wicks said the time and effort of police could be better used. "Being homeless is not a crime and it is demeaning to police who are forced to spend time they could be using to fight real crime to roust homeless people," he said.

According to the National Coalition for Homelessness, what often happens is that local police and city parks and sanitation workers are dispatched to clean up downtown areas "with little or no training on what local resources exist or how to work effectively with people who may be experiencing mental health, chemical addiction or chronic medical issues."

"Law enforcement is a poor social service provider," said David Baker of SAFES, Survivors Advocating for an Effective System, and a supporter of the Right to Sleep campaign. "All parties have to step from behind their official roles and look at the humanity issues. The repeal of the camping ban fits into our larger organizational goal of compassionate criminal justice."

Katz in 2000 challenged the Gallagher ruling and continued working to remove the homeless from downtown, insisting that she wanted to prevent city neighborhoods from becoming unsafe and unsanitary campgrounds.

In his ruling, Gallagher said that the city's purpose may be compelling to protect the safety and welfare of all its citizens. But, he says, "there are less intrusive means to achieve the same purpose. The act of sleeping or eating in a shelter away from the elements, cannot be considered intentional, avoidable conduct."

In anticipation of the Rose Festival, thousands of people in what could be termed an avoidable action because they had homes of their own roosted on sidewalks to get the best view of the the Grand Floral Parade. The Portland Tribune published a light feature about the people who camped out on the sidewalks, titled "Happy Campers." In chronicling events, John Jamison, one of those sleeping on the sidewalk with his family, declared it is "certainly an unusual thing to do. It's kind of like a bum's night out."

After the parade, the people went home and were not exposed to police intervention, which is reserved for people who have no home to retreat to. If you don't have a choice of where to go or where to sleep, then being punished for being homeless serves no incentive or purpose. That's the crux of what's described as the necessity defense, which basically says that if the city doesn't have adequate shelter for its homeless residents, then people are justified in sleeping in public because they have nowhere else to go.

The Portland City Council has the ability to repeal the camping ban but remains united thus far against taking that action. Questions to the mayor and city council members about what it would take to overturn the camping ban went unanswered for this report.

Jamie Manuel of crossroads has his own opinion about the matter.

"It would take politicians to recognize that their political career could be jeopardized by violating civil rights and constitutional rights," he said.

During the tug-of-war with the Peace Encampment at Terry Schrunk Plaza, the police posted a 24-hour anti-camping notice but did not follow up with any arrests.

Instead, they have confiscated items on the sidewalk in the name of the preservation of property. They took people out of their chairs and removed people from their sleeping bags.

On Sept. 10, 2001, the police posted a 24-hour notice on a protest camp that had branched off from Dignity Village. They arrested everyone before the 24-hour notice ran out, and the people were pardoned because the police did not follow procedure correctly, a tactic that some organizers fear could be used again if a camp sprouts up to directly challenge the ordinance.

If the police do not follow the procedure correctly, the case will be thrown out before there is a constitutional challenge.