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After Supreme Court ruling, some Oregon Democrats join Republicans in calling for changes to state camping laws

A person speaking into a microphone.
Bradley W. Parks
/
OPB
State Sen. Mark Meek, D-Gladstone, is among Democrats who believe the state needs to revisit its policies regulating camping laws.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that cities are free to outlaw homeless encampments, Republicans in Oregon wasted no time calling for changes to a state law they say hamstrings local governments from cleaning camps.

Now some Democrats have begun to join that call, potentially heightening the chance state lawmakers will act when they meet next year.

Two centrist Democratic lawmakers — Sen. Mark Meek of Gladstone and Rep. Paul Evans of Monmouth — are signaling they want to roll back a 2021 law that created vague limits on how cities can regulate camping on public property. They expect to be joined by even more Democrats in a letter they plan to send to senior members of their party.

“Communities should have clarity, and we may need to rewrite the law,” Evans said Monday. “Or because of this decision, the law may in effect be moot.”

The handwringing over state policy comes after the court ruled an anti-camping law in Grants Pass did not violate constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment — upending lower-court rulings that had limited regulation of homeless camping across much of the western United States.

The state law receiving renewed attention in light of that ruling was passed as House Bill 3115 in 2021. Championed by Gov. Tina Kotek when she served as House speaker, it requires that any local regulations on where people can sleep be “objectively reasonable.” The law allows homeless people to sue if they believe city policies don’t meet that standard, which remains undefined.

“The intent behind House Bill 3115 was to affirm that cities choosing to regulate survival activities, like sitting, lying, sleeping, or keeping warm and dry, must develop laws that are reasonable and take into account the resources available to individuals experiencing homelessness,” Kotek said last week.

At the time of its passage, HB 3115 was seen as a way to partially enshrine a standard that had already been set by federal court rulings: that cities should not punish people for sleeping outside unless there is shelter space available as an alternative. But with Friday’s decision, the Supreme Court has now reversed those rulings.

Now Meek and Evans — not to mention many of their Republican counterparts — say Oregon’s law is heaping confusion and difficulty on local officials. The two lawmakers, along with Rep. David Gomberg, D-Otis, are the only Democrats still serving in the Legislature who voted against HB 3115.

“Our communities deserve streets that are safe and clean, not only for residents but also for businesses that drive our economy,” Meek said in a statement Friday. “We must reform restrictive laws, such as HB 3115, which I voted against in 2021, so that local communities can maintain public safety.”

Evans and Meek said Monday they planned to send a letter alongside other lawmakers calling for the law to be revisited — either via a bill or some other mechanism.

“Cities right now have been given so many different competing guidelines that there is a significant amount of uncertainty,” Evans said, suggesting the state provide a “clarified grant of authority.”

But it’s not clear how many Democratic colleagues agree. Two Democrats with some of the most sway in state housing law, Rep. Pam Marsh of Ashland and Sen. Kayse Jama from Portland, said prior to the Supreme Court ruling that they didn’t expect major changes to state law.

Tents and sleeping bags near busy road.
Brian Bull
/
KLCC
Two tents near a highway overpass mark where some of Corvallis' unhoused community lives.

The 2021 law “struck a good balance confirming that cities can implement time, place and manner restrictions while ensuring that regulations are reasonable and homeless people have options,” said Marsh, chair of the House Housing and Homelessness Committee. “From my vantage point in southern Oregon, that guidance has worked well.”

Marsh told OPB Monday that, in order to take up changes to the law in her committee, “I would have to be convinced that there was either a significant problem with the law or there was a way to improve it in a substantive way.”

Meanwhile, League of Oregon Cities officials say they are analyzing the Supreme Court opinion, and will ask the group’s members whether they support pressing for a change to the law.

And advocates for the homeless have said Oregon’s statute is now a vital tool for guarding people’s rights, promising to sue cities who overstep their bounds.

“It prevents Grants Pass and any other city in Oregon from doing what Grants Pass wants to do, which is make it illegal on every inch of property 24 hours a day, for people to use as little as a blanket to try and stay warm and dry,” Ed Johnson, director of litigation at the Oregon Law Center, said during a news conference Friday. “We intend to use that law, which is more important than ever to protect homeless people in the state of Oregon.”

The state’s most powerful lawmakers have so far been mum on the Supreme Court ruling and whether they would support changes to state law.

Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, is out of town and would not provide comment, a spokesperson said. A representative for House Speaker Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, did not answer a question about her stance. Kotek’s office did not immediately respond when asked if the governor would be open to changing the law she championed.

Senate Majority Leader Kathleen Taylor, D-Portland, said Monday that lawmakers need more clarity from legislative attorneys about what the Supreme Court decision means before deciding what to do.

“What I can say is that Oregonians are clear that homelessness must remain a top priority for the legislature, and we should be doing everything in our power to make sure every person in our state has a safe place to call home,” Taylor said in a statement.

All three leaders will likely hear plenty from their Republican counterparts on the matter — both ahead of the November election and when lawmakers convene next year.

“Democrats’ ‘Right to Camp’ law will continue to hamper local governments’ ability to address homelessness effectively,” Senate Minority Leader Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, said in a statement last week. “The Legislature should immediately provide clarity to our local governments as they work to reduce homelessness in their communities by taking action on HB 3115.”

Will Lathrop, a Republican running for attorney general this year, went so far as to suggest last week that Oregon would become a magnet for houseless people if the law is not changed. “Not only will Oregon be unable to address our state’s widespread homelessness crisis — as other states start cleaning up their streets — I fear that we will see an influx of homeless populations flooding to Oregon where there is no accountability,” Lathrop said.

Dirk VanderHart covers Oregon politics and government for KLCC. Before barging onto the radio in 2018, he spent more than a decade as a newspaper reporter—much of that time reporting on city government for the Portland Mercury. He’s also had stints covering chicanery in Southwest Missouri, the wilds of Ohio in Ohio, and all things Texas on Capitol Hill.
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