The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon (ACLU) plans to prioritize its litigation firepower to counter laws it says discriminate against homeless people this year. The strategy follows Portland, Ore., Mayor Ted Wheeler’s November decision to expand existing “pedestrian use zone” legislation to include $250 fines for sitting or lying down on city sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.
A U.S. District Court judge ruled in 2009 that a previous city “sit-lie” ordinance was unconstitutional because enforcement was discriminatory and arbitrary and excluded people camped in front of stores or theaters before grand openings or concerts. Critics asked what the difference was between panhandling and a Salvation Army bell ringer asking for donations in front of a store.
A full-court press by the ACLU could produce dramatic changes for homeless legal rights. Oregon has at least 224 laws that regulate or criminalize what the ACLU calls “life-sustaining activities in a public space.” Portland’s sidewalk-sitting ordinance counts in that total, along with bans on activities such as camping, sidewalk sleeping, and panhandling.
Oregon ACLU legal director Mat dos Santos called the Portland pedestrian use zone expansion “de facto discrimination based on economic status.”
Officials face a tug-of-war in trying to provide services and show compassion for homeless people while maintaining law and order, especially when urban business clientele dries up due to safety concerns.
Portland resident Mike Rose expressed outrage in a letter to The Oregonian over his city’s failure to control the “homeless who populate our streets, urinate and defecate in doorways, block sidewalks, harass passersby, and cast an overwhelming blight all over downtown Portland.”
California voters in 2016 rejected a proposed right-to-rest bill, one prong of a multistate political push to legitimize certain activities now banned in public spaces. Oregon and Colorado have also considered—and nixed—similar bills backed by the Western Regional Advocacy Project. —R.H.