The City of Portland, Oregon, will be required to clear its sidewalks of sprawling homeless camps under terms of a lawsuit tentatively settled this week.
Filed in September, the federal class action lawsuit alleged that the city violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 by allowing tent camps and debris to obstruct sidewalks. The plaintiffs included nine people with disabilities who use wheelchairs, scooters, canes, and walkers to get around.
“I don’t always welcome being sued, but this is a notable exception,” said Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler. “I agree with this suit. People should have access to the City’s sidewalks without impediment regardless of whether they have disabilities or not.”
“And the ADA is very explicit about the rights of people with disabilities, and I believe those rights were impinged by the large number of obstructions on our sidewalks.”
Among other allegations, plaintiffs in Tozer v. Portland claimed that the Multnomah County government contributed to the proliferation of the homeless camps that blocked the sidewalks when its Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS) used $2 million in COVID-relief funding to purchase more than 22,000 tents and 69,000 tarps and distribute them to the homeless over a two-year period.
The resulting lawsuit will cost area taxpayers an additional $20 million.
Plaintiffs Make Their Case
Before voting to adopt the proposed settlement, the Portland City Council heard public testimony at its May 31 meeting.
Plaintiff Steve Jackson, who is legally blind and uses a cane, said tent encampments prevented him from using the sidewalk and accessing bus stops.
“Often there’s tents blocking the entire sidewalk, where I don’t see them because they weren’t there the day before, and I hit the tent and then people are mad at me and think I’m attacking them,” Jackson testified.
More than 82,000 people, or roughly 13 percent of Portlanders, live with a disability, said plaintiff Tiana Tozer. She explained that camps frequently take up the entire width of sidewalks and that trash and tents have been blocking the sidewalks for years.
“This change will benefit more than just the disabled,” said plaintiff Keith Martin “We want to clear the sidewalks to help everyone who has to step into the roadway to get around these camps.”
One opponent to the settlement testified that it “attacks one group of disabled people to accommodate another group of disabled people who live on the street. This settlement does nothing for them.”
Addressing Portland’s 'Humanitarian Crisis'
The settlement comes as the Portland mayor is considering an outright ban on camping on Portland sidewalks, as well as a ban on camping on other public spaces between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.
“Currently there are hundreds of unsanctioned camps spread out across virtually every neighborhood of our city, over a massive 146-square-mile area,” Wheeler wrote on a city website dedicated to the homeless issue.
In Multnomah County, where Portland is located, more than 5,200 people were homeless in 2022, according to federal point-in-time count data. That represents a 30 percent increase compared with 2019.
Wheeler called it “the humanitarian crisis of our lifetime.”
In November, the City Council voted to gradually ban street camping and create at least six large, designated campsites where homeless people will be allowed to camp. It has already set aside $27 million for these new shelter sites and said it hopes the state and county will pitch in.
Portland residents overwhelmingly support efforts to address the city’s homelessness crisis.
In a new poll by the nonprofit People for Portland, more than 70 percent of the 500 likely voters surveyed said they support the daytime camping ban proposal, and 83 percent think the rights of disabled residents should come before the rights of the homeless to camp on sidewalks.
When asked how those surveyed would describe homelessness in the Portland area, 75 percent said it was “a disaster.” Only 6 percent said the issue has turned a corner.
The class action lawsuit will force the city to take specific and measurable steps to address the issue over the next five years.
Coming to Terms
The Settlement Agreement, posted on the city website, will require the city to maintain and fund an Impact Reduction Program to address campsite removal at a cost of $20 million over the five-year term.
The goal of the program is to ensure all city sidewalks should remain free and clear of any obstruction from tents, personal property, and debris.
Under the tentative settlement, the city must prioritize removing tents that block sidewalks and clear at least 500 encampments that block sidewalks every year for the next five years. If there are fewer than 500 such campsites removed in a given year, the city will be found to be in compliance if it clears all that are blocking sidewalks.
The city must also maintain an online and phone-based reporting system where people can report sidewalks that are being blocked. It will then expedite removal of campsites in those areas, with priority given to requests for accommodations by persons with disabilities.
To publicly demonstrate compliance, the city must create a publicly accessible database of reported campsites and actions taken in response.
“No camping” signs must be posted in areas where sidewalks are frequently used for camping.
The city estimates the signage program will cost $400,000 over the life of the agreement.
The city has estimated that it will require an additional half or full-time employee to manage ADA compliance at a cost of $550,000 over five years.
Finally, the city must pay $5,000 to each of the 10 Plaintiffs as well as pay their attorneys’ fees and costs.
The city will also extend a ban on city employees and contractors handing out tents and tarps, with a few exceptions, but it will not admit wrongdoing or liability.
The settlement still requires approval from the U.S. District Court in Portland.
Meanwhile, the City Council is reconsidering its relationship with JOHS, which distributed the tents and tarps but is not governed by this agreement.