Camping law shouldnt fall


Portland is hardly an unfriendly place when it comes to the homeless population. To the contrary, this community has taken extraordinary measures to provide housing and support - both temporary and permanent - to people in need. And Portland's citizenry has demonstrated a tolerance for street culture that is seldom seen in cities of this size.

But for all its attempts to assist the homeless and allow individuals to live as they choose, Portland receives scant gratitude. Instead, the city faces constant conflict over issues related to the homeless population, with the latest example being a disappointing lawsuit filed by the Oregon Law Center challenging Portland's six-year-old anti-camping ordinance.

Who benefits from a court battle?

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, makes a number of claims, including the argument that preventing homeless people from sleeping on public property violates their freedom of movement. The suit also alleges that issuing citations for such behavior - when shelters are full - amounts to 'cruel and unusual' punishment.

We don't pretend to know how courts might view the constitutionality of the anti-camping law. But we do know the definition of 'cruelty' - and encouraging people to spend the night outdoors in the harsh weather of the past few days would seem to come close to that mark.

While camping under bridges, in parks or on other public property could yet prove to be a constitutionally protected activity, it's not a healthy one for the homeless population or the broader community. Better alternatives are available.

And if those options fall short of meeting the city's growing need for shelters and housing - as they probably do - it would be more productive to spend time and money finding new solutions to homelessness, and not on a court battle.

Portland working to do even more

No one should question the good intentions of the homeless advocates behind this legal action. At the same time, Portlanders ought to be acutely aware that the body that created and still must defend the anti-camping law - the City Council - has been dedicated now and in the past to moving the city's homeless into better circumstances.

Under the leadership of former city Commissioner Erik Sten, the city and Multnomah County in 2004 launched a 10-year plan to end homelessness that included specific strategies - and real money - to get chronically homeless people off the streets.

And just this week, Mayor-elect Sam Adams and city Commissioner Nick Fish announced a newly created Bureau of Housing that, among other things, will tackle chronic homelessness, work to protect vulnerable residents and preserve and expand Portland's affordable housing supply.

Everyone agrees better treatment of the homeless is a high priority for the city. Other priorities, however, include protecting the city's quality of life and maintaining a healthy retail environment downtown. Lawsuits don't have to balance those competing interests, but city councils do.

Allowing unrestricted camping on public property would be detrimental to the people it is supposed to help - the homeless. It also would be harmful to other Portland residents who have a right to live in a safe, orderly and sanitary city.

Rather than fight this out in court, it would be far preferable for homeless advocates and city officials to continue their discussions about the root causes of homelessness and to redouble the community's efforts to assist those in need.