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City, homeless people settle federal anti-camping lawsuit

Case could change the way police enforce city's regulations
by: Christopher Onstott A homeless man slept on a city park bench this fall amid Occupy Portland tents in two downtown parks. Attorneys for four homeless people have reached a tentative settlement with the city in a federal lawsuit challenging Portland’s anti-camping ordinance.

Portland city officials and attorneys representing four homeless people have reached a tentative agreement to settle a three-year-old federal lawsuit that sought to overturn the city's anti-camping ordinance.

Details of the settlement will be worked out by the end of February, when both sides report back to a federal judge. However, court documents filed this month indicate that the settlement will include changes to enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance and monetary damages to at least the four homeless people who brought the lawsuit.

Attorneys with the nonprofit Oregon Law Center filed the lawsuit in December 2008 challenging the constitutionality of Portland's anti-camping ordinance. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Marlin Anderson, Mary Bailey, Matthew Chase and Jack Golden, all homeless people who claimed Portland police rousted them from campsites and improperly seized their belongings during sweeps of homeless camps.

According to the complaint, without adequate shelters, some homeless people have no alternative to sleeping outside. Enforcing the anti-camping ordinance against those people by not allowing them to sleep outside violates the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment restriction against 'cruel and unusual punishment,' attorneys argued.

A request by Oregon Law Center attorneys to make the legal action a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all area homeless people affected by the anti-camping ordinance was rejected by federal Judge Ann Aiken in a Dec. 7, 2011, opinion.

In the same opinion, Aiken told attorneys for both sides to try to settle the dispute without going to trial. 'This case cries out for a political solution rather than a legal one, and the court strongly urges the decision makers in this case to consider realistic and practical measures to resolve the plaintiffs' claims,' Aiken wrote.

Defendants in the case included former Police Chief Rosie Sizer and more than four dozen 'John Doe' police officers who enforced the anti-camping ordinance.

Occupy and Right 2 Dream Too

Portland's City Council adopted the anti-camping ordinance in 2002 making it illegal for people to sleep on public property or in public rights of way. A conviction carried a maximum fine of $100 and a maximum jail sentence of 30 days.

During the past few months, enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance has been strained and tested by the five-week Occupy Portland camp in Chapman and Lownsdale squares and by the Right 2 Dream Too homeless campsite in Old Town.

Mayor Sam Adams said in mid-October that the city had decided against enforcing its anti-camping rules in the two downtown parks taken over by between 200 and 400 Occupy Portland campers. Adams said the city was using 'discretion' in its enforcement of the rules.

Just 12 blocks to the north of the Occupy Portland campsites, more than a dozen homeless people camped in a vacant lot near the Chinatown gate. City Bureau of Development Services officials began fining the Right 2 Dream Too campsite because it violated the city's rules against overnight camping on private property.

An appeal by Right 2 Dream Too campers was rejected, and the city's fines continue to pile up as the camp organizers decide what to do next.

Close to a settlement

In mid-December 2009, city commissioners were close to considering several changes to the anti-camping ordinance that would have settled the federal lawsuit, but the issue was pulled at the last minute from the council's Jan. 6, 2010, agenda.

That settlement, which would have cost the city about $30,000, would have paid the four lawsuit plaintiffs each between $200 and $500 in damages and provided $27,600 to the Oregon Law Center for its attorneys' fees in the case. It also would have altered the anti-camping ordinance to allow small groups of tents to be set up in some areas between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. each day. Campers had to pack up and leave the area after 7 a.m., and no more than four people could camp together off sidewalks and outside high-traffic areas, according to the 2009 settlement proposal.

City officials eventually pushed aside the settlement deal and the lawsuit continued in federal court until this month.

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