Oregon legislators have proposed decriminalizing public encampments as the state continues to grapple with its homelessness crisis.
The proposal, House Bill 3501, comes from two Democrats, Representatives Farrah ChaiChi and Khanh Pham.
“Many persons in Oregon have experienced homelessness as a result of economic hardship, a shortage of safe and affordable housing, the inability to obtain gainful employment and a disintegrating social safety net system,” stated the bill. “Decriminalization of rest allows local governments to redirect resources from local law enforcement activities to activities that address the root causes of homelessness and poverty.”
The sponsors of the bill argue homeless people should be allowed to use public spaces without fear they will face discrimination because of their “housing status.”
“A person experiencing homelessness has a privacy interest and a reasonable expectation of privacy in any property belonging to the person, regardless of whether the property is located in a public space,” reads the proposed law.
Homeless people who feel their right to use public space without harassment has been violated are permitted to file a civil suit and be granted $1,000 in compensatory damages per violation.
ChaiChi, the lead sponsor, said the bill protects people who are homeless and who do not have a social support system.
“There are more than 220 local laws in Oregon criminalizing homelessness, which effectively means if you are ever unable to afford housing, and you don’t have friends or family that you can crash with, or rely on for shelter, you are criminalized,” said ChaiChi while promoting the bill online on April 5, per Newsweek.
Federal data indicates that Oregon’s homeless population increased by 23% between 2020 and 2022, the fourth-highest rate of any state during the same period. The national average rate of homelessness grew by just 1% for comparison.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2022 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report found Oregon had 42 homeless people for every 10,000 residents. Approximately 62% of the state’s homeless population lives unsheltered, which includes sleeping on sidewalks, in tents, or in parked vehicles.
“Oregon had the highest rate of chronic homelessness in the nation with 44% of individuals experiencing homelessness showing patterns of chronic homelessness,” reports Oregon Live. “Chronic homelessness means that someone has a disability and been homeless for more than one year or has experienced homelessness multiple times over several years.”
Governor Tina Kotek has proposed a $130 million budget to address homelessness across the state. The critical nature of the issue prompted Kotek to declare a state of emergency on her first day as governor, Jan. 10, 2023.
The money would be used to prevent almost 9,000 households from losing their housing, increase shelter capacity by 600 beds, and provide support to 1,200 homeless people living in unsheltered conditions.
“Together, we can act with the urgency people across our state are demanding,” Kotek said, per KOIN 6. “Bold ideas, concrete solutions, disciplined follow through. That’s how we can deliver results, this year, and in the years to follow.”
State lawmakers have also proposed offering low-income and homeless people $1,000 a month as part of an initiative called the People’s Housing Assistance Fund Demonstration Program. The money would be used at the recipient’s discretion.