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News for January 17, 2022

Portland Mayor’s Office Considers Banning Homeless Camping Downtown

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According to a report, the office of Mayor Ted Wheeler has been discussing strategies to prohibit homeless camping in the downtown area of Portland in Oregon, and to relocate those camping in an area that is a “high-population outdoor camping zone.”

The idea is causing alarm from the homeless advocates and politicians.

“I believe that the creation of these zones would quickly lead to extremely detrimental outcomes for people experiencing houselessness,” wrote City Commissioner Dan Ryan to Wheeler in an October 7 email. “These are our most vulnerable community members, and requiring them to move out of certain parts of the city and into large encampments with little to no social services is a recipe for disaster.”

Ryan has been named the chief commissioner designated to supervise and oversee the Portland Housing Bureau and the Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS).

The two of them (Wheeler and Ryan ) have not provided details about the plan. However, Ryan’s email contains suggestions. The subject line reads, “My position on Villages beyond 60, Hard NO,” it’s obvious this message comes as a response to an earlier plan to establish a large open-air refuge (or village) for homeless Portlanders.

Zoning codes in the city currently do not allow the construction of outdoor shelters that accommodate more than 60 individual sleeping shelters. Ryan mentions that the July City Council vote clarified that large homeless camps are considered “high impact” by the city department that evaluates and eliminates homeless campsites situated on public property due to their impact on the environment around them.

“Lastly,” Ryan writes, “we do not have outdoor shelter providers who will engage in providing services to sanctioned encampments of this size.”

This approach is not in line with Wheeler’s public stance on Portland’s homelessness issue. Wheeler has supported decisions taken by JOHS to provide supportive housing programs which help homeless people keep their homes and recently, he supported a plan developed by the City Commissioner Dan Ryan to open six small-scale outdoor shelters that will help those who wish to end homelessness.

In response to a request from a local report for a statement to elaborate on what propositions the email addresses refer to, Wheeler sent this emailed statement: “Commissioner Ryan and I agree that we need many options on the table to address today’s houseless challenges. We also agree that large, high-population, sanctioned camp sites come with unique challenges and require additional vetting with service providers and community stakeholders. We will continue to work together in good faith to find solutions.”

Ryan’s letter closes with this promise: “I earnestly want to work with you to make strides in resolving our City’s most pressing crisis; however I cannot support this approach for the reasons I’ve indicated above. I will continue to work with you closely, and in good faith, to find solutions.”

Wheeler Ryan and Ryan are currently in discussions together with Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury about the possibility of combining funding from the county budget to support initiatives that tackle homelessness throughout the region. The partnership has delayed city budget hearings that were planned for the week of October, but have been moved to the beginning of November.

Kafoury stated on Tuesday that she had “not been a part of any conversations with the city” regarding camping bans or massive outdoor shelters.

As per an 2018 decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, cities are not able to ban camping in public spaces when there aren’t any alternative shelter alternatives available. This decision prompted the city council’s desire to expand shelter options throughout the city including outdoor and indoor spaces. A few advocates for the homeless have expressed concerns that the new legal ruling could mean that homeless people are being forced by the city to move to shelters or risk arrest. The shelter policies of the city reflect this particular concern in the present.

The camping ban has been tested against Portlanders at times. In 2005, Portland City Council introduced a “sit-lie” ordinance, a policy that prohibited sitting or lying on sidewalks. When the ordinance was found to disproportionately penalize homeless Portlanders, the ordinance was ruled invalid by an appellate court decision and was considered to be in violation of the Constitution.

In 2010 after tension from Portland Business Alliance (PBA) then-Mayor Sam Adams gave the policy another go with the same name, but this time as a “Sidewalk Management Plan. ” The plan would prohibit people to sit or lie within an 8-foot “pedestrian-use space” on sidewalks that are public and would effectively make it unlawful to sit or lie near the curb on a sidewalk. The rule was approved by the city council in the year 2010.

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