Portland Passes New Homeless Encampment Rule That Involves Jail Time

By: Ben Campbell | Published: May 15, 2024

The city of Portland, Oregon, has passed a new controversial law that aims to remove homeless people from the streets and place them into shelters. The new law grants city officials the power to fine all residents who violate camping rules. 

In more severe cases, a jail sentence could be imposed on recurring offenders, a prospect that has raised significant concern among many residents who suggest homeless people shouldn’t be criminalized due to a lack of shelters or housing.

Portland's Homelessness Situation

Like many cities across the U.S., Portland has seen a dramatic surge in homelessness since the start of the pandemic and has since reached a record high, with as many as 11,000 people living on the streets in the city. 

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A photograph showing off a small homeless camp in a U.S. city

Source: John Moore/Getty Images

This led to Mayor Ted Wheeler implementing several plans to overhaul the city’s response to homelessness, including a plan to halve the homeless population by 2026. 

The Beginning of Portland's New Plans

In March, Wheeler said, “Portlanders have rightly demanded action from their elected leaders, and the implementation of this plan will result in a more effective and unified strategy to address the homelessness crisis.”

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A photograph of Portland City Mayor Ted Wheeler

Source: Nathan Howard/Getty Images

This past week, the Portland City Council unanimously approved new rules to help relocate homeless people from the streets and place them into temporary shelters.

The New Laws

According to the new laws, homeless people who are found camping on public property in the city will first be offered shelter. However, if they refuse, they will be fined up to $100. 

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A lawyer is pictured adding his signature to paperwork

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Under certain circumstances, those who violate the new laws may be sentenced to prison for a maximum of seven days, suggesting the city will not compromise on its new regulations. 

Rules For When Shelter is Unavailable

Due to Portland’s ever-increasing homeless population, the city council has also included rules that dictate what should happen to those who violate the new laws, even if no shelter is available. 

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An image of a homeless man begging on the street

Source: Freepik

They claim that if the shelter is unavailable at a particular moment, the newly issued penalties also apply to homeless people who start fires, use gas heaters, block sidewalks or have their personal belongings more than 2 feet from their tents. 

Portland City Mayor Releases Statement

Portland City Mayor Ted Wheeler released a statement on the new laws, suggesting they are a step forward in ensuring proper management of public spaces. 

A photograph of Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler

Source: Wikimedia

“Addressing the issue of unsheltered homelessness in our city is a complex and urgent matter, and I believe this ordinance represents a significant step forward in our ongoing efforts to manage public spaces effectively,” said the Mayor.

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No Worries for Those Who Accept Shelter Says Mayor's Office

According to officials from Mayor Wheeler’s office, those who accept shelter when it is offered will not have to worry about being cited. 

A photograph of a homeless man eating a meal

Source: Freepik

However, those who outright refuse to be placed in one of the city’s shelters will be cited, and ultimately, it will be left up to the courts whether or not to waive the fines. The new ordinance hopes to encourage people to seek emergency shelter or housing rather than jail time. 

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Mayor's Office Aims to Have Reasonable Restrictions

The Mayor’s office claims the new laws simply seek to align with state law, which requires cities to have “objectively reasonable” restrictions on where and when people can camp on public land. 

An image of Portland’s City Hall during a clear afternoon

Source: Wikimedia

A stricter version of the recently implemented laws was proposed, which banned any form of camping during daylight hours. However, this has since been placed on hold. 

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US Cities Struggle With Growing Level of Homelessness Camps

The new laws in Portland come at a time when various other cities in the U.S. are struggling to keep up with the growing number of encampments popping up due to an increased level of homelessness and migration.

An image of a homeless camp in San Francisco

Source: Wikimedia

Numerous officials have voiced their concerns, suggesting that tougher regulations must be signed into law to ensure public spaces are kept both sanitary and safe. Critics, meanwhile, claim homeless people shouldn’t be punished due to a lack of housing. 

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Portland's New Plan Set in Motion

Nonetheless, Portland’s new plan is the first step in achieving the region’s goal of halving its unsheltered and homeless population by the year 2026. 

A photograph of Portland's Downtown Skyline

Source: Wikimedia

To do this, the offices of Wheeler and Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson aim to build more affordable housing, add more shelter beds, expand access to mental health and create new committees to oversee the work. 

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Pederson Makes a Statement

Speaking on the new plan back in March, Vega Pederson said she, along with Portland’s mayor and state officials, aims to ensure better care for those living on the streets. 

A photograph of Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson

Source: Wikimedia

“Today, we unveil a comprehensive and ambitious plan because the people living on our streets need shelter, safety, support and a path to housing,” she said. 

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