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Bend City Council narrowly passes code on illegal camping

A person occupies a snow-covered tent on the outskirts of Bend, as the outside temperature approaches single digits on Dec. 29, 2021.
Emily Cureton Cook
/
A person occupies a snow-covered tent on the outskirts of Bend, as the outside temperature approaches single digits on Dec. 29, 2021.

By the slimmest of margins, the Bend City Council approved a new code change Wednesday that will severely limit where, when and how unhoused people can camp on city property.

The 4-3 vote dictates the code change will go into effect in March, and could greatly alter how unhoused people are able to camp in the city.

Those camping outside will be required to move locations by 600 feet, or one block, every 24 hours. The rules apply to camping on city property and public right-of-ways, such as sidewalks and landscaping strips, while camping in residentially zoned areas will be banned completely.

The code applies to those camping in tents, as well as those living in vehicles. Camping would be limited to around three spaces per block.

The code also takes its rules beyond where people can live by dictating what types of items they can possess while living outdoors. Only items considered by the city as necessary for camping and personal use will be allowed — items such as generators and bicycles beyond what’s considered needed will be prohibited.

Code changes would apply to a growing population in Bend. The 2022 point-in-time count tallied at least 1,300 unhoused adults and children living in Central Oregon, and noted Bend in particular has several hundred fewer shelter beds than are needed.

Previously, Bend had no code on the books regarding camping on city property. The city could only remove a campsite if it was declared a public safety hazard and had received a 72-hour eviction notice, something City Manager Eric King has done on multiple occasions the past two years.

How the city will enforce the code remains unclear and is not spelled out in the code. City officials have stated that discussions on establishing administrative rules will begin in December and run through March.

Councilors Melanie Kebler, Anthony Broadman, Stephen Sehgal and Megan Perkins all voted in favor of the code change. Mayor Gena Goodman-Campbell, and Councilors Barb Campbell and Mo Mitchell voted against it.

The current set of councilors is typically uniform in its decision making, with most votes on issues being unanimous. But the controversial code change — and its potential impact on unhoused people living in Bend — brought out emotional reactions Wednesday night and divided councilors.

Mitchell, the code’s biggest critic since its inception, said they thought the changes had been brought about too quickly and would only further criminalize homelessness in the city.

“My concern is that it’s going to result in a lot of police involvement,” Mitchell said. “Police are not trained in a way to understand some of these complexities… I think (the code) causes a lot of harm.” Mitchell is a licensed mental health counselor who was appointed to the council in June. Their time on council is set to end in January.

Explaining her vote against the ordinance, Campbell repeatedly pointed to the requirement for people to move campsites every 24 hours, calling it “cruel.” She also said it seemed the city was starting the code in March to avoid colder weather, but that it’s still often cold in Bend at that time of year.

Kebler, the city’s mayor-elect, said the purpose of the code was to lay some ground rules about what kind of camping would be allowed.

“Our community has been asking for some clarity,” Kebler said. “I think that we are moving to achieve that.”

The passage of the code comes about three weeks after city officials swept an illegal campsite on 2nd Street, the third such sweep at that site this year alone, after nearby businesses and residents filed complaints with the city. City-hired crews began removing tents before sunrise, when the temperature was below freezing.

Beth Brady, who works with High Desert Peace Kitchen, said that while the city gave residents of the camp more time to find a new place, many residents still couldn’t locate a place to stay.

“Things unraveled quickly,” Brady said. “There was simply nowhere for these people to go and no solutions… The majority remained frozen with fear.”

The vast majority of people speaking during public comment Wednesday urged councilors not to pass the code change, with many saying the timing felt political, given that city elections took place just a week earlier.

The City Council has come under frequent pressure from some residents to address the growing presence of homelessness in Bend.

The code also comes as many cities in Oregon debate how to address growing numbers of those experiencing homelessness, and leaders face increasing pressure to deal with so-called quality of life issues. The Portland City Council recently approved a citywide ban on outdoor camping and the establishment of six city-designated camps for unhoused people. The ban and the camps in Portland would go fully into effect in 2024.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Joni Land