FILE — Oregon homeless tent

A tent sits among a homeless encampment along a freeway corridor in Salem, Oregon 

(The Center Square) – Two bills in the Oregon Legislature aim to expand and specify the civil rights of the homeless.

On Tuesday, state lawmakers chose the one that critics say opens up a concerning loophole.

The broadest of the two bills, House Bill 2367, would have given the homeless an affirmative legal defense for inhabiting public spaces, allowing them to sue against authorities for up to $1,000 per civil violation.

The bill, introduced by state Rep. Wlnsvey Campos, D-Aloha, is one of hundreds around the country attempting to codify a 2018 U.S. 9th Circuit Court ruling granting the homeless the right to occupy public spaces in lieu of shelter. It was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019.

HB 2367, dubbed the "Oregon Right to Rest Act," garnered support across a wide range of homeless advocacy groups along with families of homeless people killed on the streets.

They include Ovid Neal III, who was killed in 2018 by two teens while sleeping in a Eugene parking lot. The holder of a master's degree in theological studies, Neal suffered from bipolar disorder and lived on $800 a month in disability payments. He often walked 10 miles a day to comply with the city's loitering laws, according to his sister, Amanda Neal Roth, who testified in favor of HB 2367 on Tuesday to the House Judiciary Committee.   

"Homeless people’s lives are at risk when they are prevented from gathering in public spaces and sticking together," Roth said. "We have a humanitarian crisis in the U.S. that needs to be addressed by federal, state and local governments. We need to unite to stand for up for human decency, and to acknowledge that we all deserve better."

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reports 14,655 is the estimated number of homeless persons living in Oregon in 2020—an 8% decline from 2019's count. Homeless deaths remain untracked at the federal level and are up to counties and local nonprofits like Street Roots to count. In 2019, 113 homeless persons died in Multnomah County or nearly two people per weekSenate Bill 580 would require the state to count the homeless among its annual death reports.

It was House Bill 3115, courtesy of House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, that passed the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. The bill is written in the same spirit as the Right to Rest Act and grants homeless persons the unfettered right to sit, lie, sleep, and escape the elements in outdoor public spaces—with one big string attached.

The bill, which aims to enshrine that right in state law within 90 days and local laws by 2023, specifically protects "objectively reasonable" activities among the homeless. The language echoes perennial complaints from Oregon residents who frame homeless camps as magnets for drugs and litter. HB 3115's supporters say it guarantees the homeless the bare minimum—a space to live.

"This bill does not give people the right to leave trash about, urinate in public, aggressively panhandle, block a doorway or passageway, or engage in destructive activities," said Heather Sielicki with the White Bird Clinic. "This bill simply makes it legal for people to move freely, rest, sleep, protect themselves from the elements, eat and share food, and other basic acts necessary for human survival."

Some public officials worry those accusations will hold up in court should HB 3115 leave the definition of "objectively reasonable" activities up for debate. Salem City Manager Steve Powers counts himself among them.

"We appreciate the work of stakeholders to draft this bill and look forward to transitioning to a conversation about how the state can partner with cities and counties in preventing homelessness," Powers wrote to the Judiciary Committee. "However, in its current draft, the language in HB 3115 is overly broad and unclear. Without amendments, the bill will require extensive litigation to clarify the scope."

One Salem couple, Jan and Ken Nolley, agreed that the courts could kill any good intentions outlined in HB 3115.

"We are concerned that the remedy provided for homeless county residents by HB 3115 is circuit court," the couple said. "We believe that without experience in the legal system, and without funds for an attorney, most homeless persons will likely feel that pursuit of a remedy in that venue is hopeless."

Still, HB 3115 has seen strong support from the cities of Portland, Medford, and Marion County. The bill is a larger part of House Democrats' housing agenda this session, which includes speeding up emergency shelter construction and protecting the state's $65 million hotel and motel shelters from litigation. 

HB 3115 saw its third reading in the House on Wednesday. It is not scheduled for a floor vote.

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.