Federal Lawsuit Alleges City of Portland Fails to Uphold Americans With Disabilities Act by Allowing Tents on Sidewalks

Plaintiffs ask the court to mandate that the city clear all sidewalks of tents and also make shelter available to all those swept.

SIDEWALK STORIES: A collapsed rain protection in downtown Portland on May 9, 2022. (Blake Benard)

Ten Portlanders with disabilities filed a class action lawsuit in United States District Court on Tuesday evening, alleging the city of Portland has violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by allowing homeless people to camp on city sidewalks.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the plaintiffs by five Davis Wright Tremaine attorneys, including John DiLorenzo, asks a judge to mandate the city sweep all tents from sidewalks and provide their occupants alternative shelter.

The lawsuit’s argument hinges on a section of the Americans with Disabilities Act that identifies sidewalks as a “service, program, or activity” within the city that must remain accessible for those with disabilities.

“The City has failed and continues to fail to maintain its sidewalks clear of debris and tent encampments, which is necessary to make its sidewalks readily accessible to people with mobility disabilities,” the lawsuit reads. “Indeed, a substantial number of the City’s sidewalks—particularly those in the City’s busiest business corridors—do not comply with applicable federal statutes and regulations because they are blocked by tent encampments and attendant debris, rendering the sidewalks inaccessible, dangerous, and unsanitary for people with mobility disabilities.”

The plaintiffs asked the court to mandate that the city clear all sidewalks of tents and also make shelter available to all those swept, even if it means immediately constructing shelter for everyone to avoid running into problems with a 2017 9th U.S. Circuit Court decision that prohibits cities from criminalizing homelessness if there are not adequate beds to shelter people.

“To the extent the City may be unable to clear the City’s sidewalks of tent encampments due to the constraints imposed by Martin v. City of Boise, [we seek] an order requiring the City to construct, purchase, or otherwise provide for emergency shelters in which to house the unsheltered persons affected by the Court’s judgment,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit alleges the city has abdicated its duty to keep sidewalks free of tents for more than three years, and the lawsuit names specific areas that it says are the most egregious examples: Old Town, Chinatown, Downtown, the Pearl District, the Central Eastside, Laurelhurst Park and Sunnyside Elementary School.

The City Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The city does not typically comment on pending litigation.

Correction: A prior version of this story stated that the lawsuit demands the city sweep tents from sidewalks while litigation is ongoing. That’s incorrect; the lawsuit requests that at the conclusion of litigation. WW regrets the error.

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