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Homeless Right to Sleep on Sidewalks Pushed by Oregon Senator

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

 

Thousands of homeless people could have the legal right to sleep on public sidewalks if a fledgling bill passes into law. 

State Right to Rest legislation would permit people to sleep, sit, lay down, and protect themselves from the elements in public spaces, including sidewalks. The preliminary draft bill, bound for the Oregon Senate, is causing concern among law enforcement officials and businesses leaders in Portland, while galvanizing activists around the country. 

“Houseless people are constantly getting criminalized for exercising human rights,” said Ibrahim Mubarak of Right 2 Dream Too, a homeless encampment in Portland’s Old Town district. “Sooner or later, you’re going to fall asleep on the street -- and that’s a human right, not a crime.”

The Right to Rest Act is the first of a three-pronged Homeless Bill of Rights, more than two years in the making. Sen. Chip Shields plans to submit the draft bill during the first week of February's legislative session, on behalf of a coalition of homelessness advocacy agencies, known as the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP).

“People who are homeless not only struggle with life on the street, they struggle with the indignity of being treated like criminals because they have nowhere to eat, sit, or sleep,” Shields said in a statement. “This bill is about making sure everyone is treated humanely under the law.” 

WRAP spokesperson Paul Boden said the draft bill accepted by Sen. Shields mirrors a bill the coalition is pushing in California. Critics, who say the city has failed to address Portland’s growing homeless population, argue such legislation would disproportionately impact residents and businesses without solving the issue at hand. 

On Wednesday, hundreds of  housing advocates, homeless, and previously homeless people, are expected to converge on Portland City Hall to voice their support for the Homeless Bill of Rights. 

Legal enforcement 

Police say people sleeping in the public spaces do so in a legal grey area: people are not legally allowed to sleep on the street, or in parks, but on-duty officers frequently allow it during night hours. 

“There’s a lot of hands-off approach to letting people sleep,” said Portland Police Bureau Sgt. Pete Simpson. “But in the morning, it’s time to pick it up and get going.” 

Right to Rest legislation would remove local police jurisdiction to send people on their way come morning, said Boden. He argued municipal legislation that prohibits sleeping on the street or in a park, camping, or resting in a restroom or transit center don’t apply to people who are housed. This fact, he said, criminalizes homelessness. 

Simpson, who said calls from residents about homeless people are an everyday occurrence, said such legislation could impact residents disproportionately. 

“If someone calls the police and no one is breaking the law, we can’t respond,” Simpson said. “That doesn’t make the person calling feel any better.”

Business concerns 

The possibility of people being legally permitted to sleep on the street is a concern for business owners, many of whom have grown accustomed to homeless people.

"Public streets are for us to share, not to take over,"  said Nob Hill Business Association President Pat Fiedler.

Fiedler said she is torn over the issue, and remembers a homeless man who slept near her storefront at 23rd Avenue and Kearney Street. 

“I never would have known he was there, except when I came in early,” she said. However, she said an increasing number of people began coming to the area. 

 “It’s important people realize it isn’t very pleasant when you have to clean up after someone.” Fiedler said such legislation enabling people to occupy the street with no time limit might provide a challenge for business owners in the busy Nob Hill district, but, she maintains that the solution lies in the community. 

The bill would also guarantee the use of a vehicle for resting, sleeping, or shelter, be allowed by law. 

Portland Business Alliance President and CEO Sandra McDonough said in a statement the community should focus on creating more shelter space, an issue she said the organization has raised before council in the past, and will again.  

Actions before Council 

“What we’re asking is all people be allowed to use space in same way, including sleeping and sitting,” said Lindsay Goes Behind, outreach coordinator for Sisters of the Road, an organization that spent two years working on the legislation. “Voodoo Donuts customers block the sidewalk, but they don’t get written up.” 

Three speakers, members of the Right 2 Dream Too encampment, will speak before the Mayor and Council Wednesday to rally support among Portland officials. Goes Behind said two more bills, addressing the right to sanitation and hygiene, and the right to use a necessity defense in criminal proceedings, are in store. 

State legislators, including Rep. Lew Frederick, Rep. Jeff Reardon, Rep. Betty Komp, Rep. Joe Gallegos, and Rep. Mitch Greenlick have already signed onto the legislative concept, signifying a pledge to sign onto the bill when it is introduced. 

Dana Haynes, a spokesperson for Portland Mayor Charlie Hales, said it is too early to speculate on how a Right to Rest bill would impact the city, but that the Mayor looks forward to hearing from activists. 

Sen. Chip Shields did not respond to requests for interview in time for publication.

 

Related Slideshow: 6 States With The Highest Homelessness Rates

These six states all had at least 300 out of 100,000 people homeless in 2013. 

Prev Next

6. North Dakota

306 out of every 100,000 people were homeless in North Dakota in 2013.

Prev Next

5. Nevada

312 out of every 100,000 people were homeless in Nevada in 2013.

Prev Next

4. Oregon

360 out of every 100,000 people were homeless in Oregon in 2013.

Prev Next

3. California

367 out of every 100,000 people were homeless in California in 2013. 

Prev Next

2. New York

399 out of every 100,000 people were homeless in New York in 2013. 

Prev Next

1. Hawaii

465 out of every 100,000 people were homeless in Hawaii in 2013. 

 
 

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