Courts Create Confusion on Homeless Camping Bans

By David Krogh

As previously reported in The Southeast Examiner, the City of Salem recently instituted a ban on camping on public property aimed at curbing homeless camps and litter problems. 

Wary of court actions, the City had arranged to provide funding to a nonprofit group to bolster homeless sheltering.  That arrangement fell through and Salem’s plans are now in limbo. 

The City of Woodburn has just imposed its own homeless camping ban on public properties and has provided dedicated funds to a service provider for sheltering.

The court involved in these determinations, the federal 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals, made a landmark ruling in a case involving Boise, ID that cities cannot ban camping if there are not enough shelter beds to house homeless campers. 

Another Oregon court case however, is now adjusting the focus of that spotlight.

In 2017, homeless Portlander Alexandra Barrett requested in County Circuit Court that criminal charges she had been accused of for camping in downtown Chapman Park be dismissed because they unfairly targeted her for being homeless. 

Her attorneys argued the charges against her violated the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment when applied to the homeless. The Circuit Court ruled against her, sparking an appeal to the Oregon Court of Appeals.

The Appeals court upheld the Circuit Court decision January 29 but with mixed observations. The Oregon appellate judges stated that they were not bound by the federal case because only federal appeals or Supreme Court cases are binding on a state appeals court. 

They argued that Barrett had not gone into adequate detail to verify that no shelter beds were available to her at the time of her arrest. 

Two judges additionally stated that banning camping on public property by homeless people likely does violate the Eighth Amendment, especially if they are not voluntarily homeless. Such a determination, however, would have to be done by a higher court than the state appellate court.

Portland’s City Attorney’s Office welcomed the decision and reiterated that Portland’s camping ban is in line with state and federal requirements. Subsequently the ACLU and the Oregon Legal Justice Center have requested the City re-examine its camping ban as it has a tendency to criminalize people who have nowhere else to sleep. 

Meanwhile, Barrett’s attorneys are preparing to file an appeal with the Oregon Supreme Court where the issue of constitutionality might finally be addressed.  

Portland’s camping ban is not being uniformly enforced at this time as indicated by the many tents and tarps that have been popping up continuously in multiple locations (mainly along public right-of-ways and sidewalks) all throughout the City. 

Homelessness in Portland has actually gone up slightly since last year, according to media statistics. 

The City of Beaverton is looking into a program to allow homeless car/RV parking in select parking lots as one means to address street-side camping. 

Other jurisdictions, particularly in southern CA, are looking at establishing homeless camping locations which include on-site services.  

The Oregon state legislature’s current “short session” will look at HB4001 which could provide up to $40 million to cities for homeless shelter and navigation center support.

Courts Create Confusion on Homeless Camping Bans

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