Heated Public Debate Over Homelessness

Portland, Ore. — Residents weighed in on two competing ordinances regarding the enforcement of homeless camps on city property in a debate held on Wednesday. The debate took place against a backdrop of legal uncertainty, with the city currently unable to enforce its daytime ban on homeless camps.

Mayor Ted Wheeler’s proposal aims to navigate this legal landscape cautiously. It would theoretically allow the city to arrest individuals for illegal camping on public property, but police could only do so if shelter was available and the person refused it. The ordinance includes restrictions to keep homeless camps off sidewalks and around business entrances, irrespective of shelter availability. Violations would incur a $100 fine, up to 7 days in jail, or both.

Commissioner Rene Gonzalez proposed amendments that would significantly alter Wheeler’s plan. Initially, Gonzalez proposed raising penalties for illegal camping, but later revised his stance. His proposal disregards Wheeler’s cautious approach, opting for a blanket ban on camping on public property not designated as a shelter. Additionally, it grants the Portland mayor or a designee the authority to change enforcement rules without public testimony or City Council approval. A last-minute amendment introduced a 30-day public comment period for transparency.

Gonzalez’s proposal also includes provisions to automatically ban camping if specific court cases or state laws change. Violations under the revised proposal would result in fines up to $1,000, eliminating the possibility of jail time.

The debate at the council session revolved around the legal implications of each plan. While Wheeler’s proposal aligns with Portland’s legal obligations, Gonzalez’s plan is driven by values, aiming for a complete ban on unsanctioned camping. Gonzalez emphasized the fluid legal environment and the need for city code to reflect council values rather than track state law precisely.