Wheeler Proposes Criminal Penalties for Camping and Lighting Fires Along City Streets

And a settlement with disabled Portlanders would require a minimum number of sweeps.

A person living beneath the Steel Bridge was taken to the hospital after a fire in March. (Brian Brose)

Camping on Portland streets is no picnic, and it’s about to get a lot harder.

New city ordinances proposed by Mayor Ted Wheeler would criminalize repeat offenses of camping during the day, starting fires, and leaving trash. Wheeler said he will propose the new rules to the Portland City Council on May 31, the same day the council considers a settlement with a group of people with disabilities who sued to remove tents from sidewalks, where they impede wheelchair use.

Together, the two developments will make it much harder for unhoused people to set up semi-permanent camps on city property, where they proliferated during the pandemic.

Wheeler’s push comes as Oregon cities seek to comply with a law passed by the Oregon Legislature in 2021 that requires them to formulate laws that are “objectively reasonable as to time, place and manner with regards to persons experiencing homelessness.”

The city of Beaverton, for example, is holding hearings on complying with the state law, which started as House Bill 3115 in the 2021 regular session. The law requires cities to comply by July 1.

Wheeler’s plan would impose $100 fines or jail time of 30 days for offenders who violate the rules three times. Among the violations that would draw prosecution: camping between the hours of 8 am and 8 pm, obstructing public streets and sidewalks, starting fires, using gas heaters, terracing the ground to make level spots for tents, and leaving garbage on city property.

As reported by WW on May 16, camping would be prohibited at all times in city plazas, pedestrian zones and parks, or within 250 feet of schools and day care facilities.

Wheeler’s proposal also cracks down on chop shops that deal in stolen cars and bicycles. Anyone storing, assembling, disassembling or selling two or more cars or three or more bikes would be subject to prosecution. So would anyone storing or selling a car with the battery or tires removed.

“These changes are critical to the city’s compliance with state law and vital to our community’s ability to return to the vibrant place we all love,” Wheeler said in a statement.

The settlement of Tozer v. Portland adds other restrictions. Tiana Tozer, one of the plaintiffs, brought the class action lawsuit in September, alleging the city of Portland violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act by allowing homeless people to camp on city sidewalks. WW first reported Wednesday that the city had reached a tentative settlement of the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, John DiLorenzo at Davis Wright Tremaine, released details of the settlement with the city’s attorneys. It, too, must be approved by the City Council.

Among the requirements of the settlement, the city must guarantee for five years that 40% of annual campsite removals be devoted to clearing sidewalks.

The city must also set up a 24-hour hotline to report camps that obstruct rights of way; assess the reported campsites within five days; tell campers who are removed that they may not relocate on sidewalks; and post “no camping” signs in frequently obstructed areas.

The settlement would ban the city from handing out tents and tarps, except during subfreezing weather or if the gear helps relocate campers. It would require the city to spend at least $8 million in the coming fiscal year, and $3 million in the four years afterward, on camp clearing. The city would have to clear at least 500 camps a year, unless there aren’t any to clear.

“We are hopeful that this settlement will relieve one of the city’s largest minority groups—persons with mobility disabilities—of the burdens which have been associated with misguided policies that have left homeless persons to languish on sidewalks,” plaintiffs’ attorney DiLorenzo said in a statement.

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.