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Rene Gonzalez, candidate for Portland mayor, pitches more punitive approach to homeless campers

As Portland leaders weigh whether to replace the city’s outright ban on daytime camping with a scaled-back version, one city commissioner — and mayoral hopeful — is pitching a potentially more punitive alternative.

Rene Gonzalez is floating a measure that would immediately ban homeless camping citywide and substantially increase fines or jail time for violations, should the U.S. Supreme Court and Oregon Legislature do away with current restrictions.

The proposal would also allow Portland’s mayor or a mayoral designee to adopt administrative rules related to camping restrictions on public property, effectively making such decisions an executive power instead the purview of the City Council, according to a copy obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive.

And it would keep the current punishment for camping in a place or manner barred by the city at up to a month in jail, not reduce it to a single week, as Mayor Ted Wheeler and other city council members propose.

City Attorney Robert Taylor shared a draft copy of Gonzalez’s proposed changes with council offices Tuesday afternoon, several hours after Portland leaders agreed to delay a hearing on changes to the city’s ban on daytime camping scheduled for Thursday.

“Comm. Gonzalez asked that I circulate this draft to your offices,” Taylor wrote in an email.

Shah Smith, Gonzalez’s chief of staff, emailed The Oregonian/OregonLive a statement from the commissioner. “Since the day I arrived in City Hall, our office has been monitoring and dialoguing with the Mayor’s Office and other public partners on solutions to encampments,” it said. “Our office is committed to aggressively protecting Portland from the crime, fire hazards, and debilitating drug culture in the encampments that are preying on our most vulnerable residents and harming our community.”

In the statement, Gonzalez also said he favors making camping regulation an executive matter because “it is flexible and can adjust as a fluid legal environment evolves” and that he favors “more aggressive enforcement” if current legal rulings and state law change.

Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who is also running for mayor, slammed Gonzalez’s proposal.

“We had a revised camping policy that struck the right balance that was ready for council consideration,” Rubio told The Oregonian/OregonLive in a statement. “Then, late yesterday, Commissioner Gonzalez put a different approach on the table that is inhumane and will no doubt be immediately legally challenged. It criminalizes homelessness – without an opportunity to choose a path toward treatment – and that’s not what Portlanders want. Portlanders want accountability with compassion – in the form of real addiction and mental health treatment choices.”

At Wheeler’s urging, the council had been planning to hold a public hearing and eventual vote on a plan to allow camping at all hours of the day but forbid doing so in certain locations, to light fires at camp sites or store possessions over a wide area. City officials hatched that proposal after a judge put the city’s current daytime ban on hold while it is under legal challenge.

State law, passed by majority Democrats, requires cities to “ensure the most humane treatment for removal of homeless individuals from camping sites on public property,” including providing 72 hours of advance notice. It also requires that any rules limiting the time, manner or place where homeless individuals can sleep and stay warm and dry be “objectively reasonable.”

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case out of Grants Pass, testing whether it is constitutional for cities to ban camping on all public property if the city doesn’t have enough shelter beds for homeless individuals.

In that case, and a related one out of Boise, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rules that it is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment to cite and fine people for camping or sleeping outside if they have nowhere else to go. Those rulings are binding in Oregon and eight other Western states under 9th Circuit jurisdiction.

But a host of powerful entities, including California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsome, and the liberal city of San Francisco are urging the Supreme Court to loosen the limits on how jurisdictions can respond to widespread camping.

Should the high court give cities more latitude, Gonzalez’s proposal would automatically increase the penalities for improper camping to a fine of up to $500 and up to a year in jail.

— Shane Dixon Kavanaugh covers Portland city government and politics, with a focus on accountability and watchdog reporting.

Reach him at 503-294-7632

Email at [email protected]

Follow on Twitter @shanedkavanaugh

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