Oregon City Attempts to Deal With Car Camping Safety Concerns

By MARINA STARLEAF RIKER, The Bulletin | August 29, 2016

How to deal with people who sleep in cars throughout Bend’s neighborhoods has become a thorny enforcement problem for city officials.

Last week, the issue became a topic of debate at the Bend City Council meeting, and it’s something that has been brought up at various meetings since April. The most recent discussion was spurred when the Oregon city received an email from a Bend resident wondering what to do about a man sleeping in a van in her neighborhood.

“There are children riding their scooters around and walking to the pool. If a registered molester resides in a residence – the public can look up and be warned – hard to do for a guy who lives in his van,” Karen Welsh wrote in an email. “Something about this isn’t right.”

City law says cars can’t be parked in a public right of way for more than five days or else they can be towed, said Bend Police Chief Jim Porter. But the process to tow the car can actually take up to two weeks, Porter said.

To combat the problem, some city councilors have pushed to shorten the time a car can be parked on a street. Other councilors and law enforcement officials say passing stricter laws would be costly and ineffective and wouldn’t address why people are sleeping in their cars in the first place.

Bend is not unlike many other cities grappling with how to deal with homeless people sleeping on public land or in cars with nowhere else to go. But experts say implementing a law to address people sleeping in their cars could be deemed unconstitutional or jeopardize federal funding for homelessness services.

Across the nation, citywide bans on camping in public have increased by 60 percent since 2011, according to a recent National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty report that surveyed 187 cities between 2011 and 2014. The report found 53 percent of the cities prohibited sitting or lying down in public, while 43 percent banned sleeping in vehicles.

Some of these laws can pose constitutional challenges. A 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling from 2006 found that, on nights when people are unable to find shelter space, enforcement of anti-camping ordinances violated their constitutional rights.

Laws that prohibit life-sustaining behaviors in public places – such as sleeping, resting or sitting – criminalize homelessness itself when people simply have nowhere else to go, according to a U.S. Department of Justice statement from 2015.

Thus, those laws may violate the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, according to the DOJ.

Ian Leitheiser, associate city attorney for Bend, said it “wouldn’t be a stretch to say lots of public sector attorneys around the country took this as a warning to be cautious in implementing or enforcing anti-camping regulations.”

Meanwhile, cities including Honolulu, Baltimore and Miami lost between $500,000 and $2.5 million in federal funding after adopting ordinances that criminalize homelessness, ranging from bans on sitting and lying on sidewalks to prohibiting panhandling in public streets.

Here in Bend, passing a law to ban people from sleeping in cars or shortening the allowed parking period could be tricky, said Gary Firestone, assistant city attorney. For example, if people who are homeless were cited more often than people who park their cars too long, it could be unconstitutional for targeting a specific group of people, he said.

“Even though I think as written it’s facially OK, we could enforce it in an unequal fashion that could get us into trouble,” said Firestone. “We could have issues or would have issues if there was no available shelter space in the city if they were sleeping on the street.”

Porter, Bend’s police chief, said there’s also a state law that requires police officers to give campers 24 hours’ notice to move off city property. Plus, police cite people for camping or parking too long in the city, but about half of the citations aren’t paid, said Porter. That makes the economics of enforcing policies even more complicated, especially when there are no rules addressing how far cars need to move, he said.

And although camping in the city limits is illegal, whether or not sleeping in a car is considered camping is also a gray zone, Porter said.

“So you cite them and they move their vehicle anyway, what do you accomplish?” Porter said. “It gets to the point where you’re playing whack-a-mole – you’re chasing people around neighborhoods.”

Welsh, who lives in Renaissance Ridge in southwest Bend, was told in an email from her homeowner’s association that the Crystal Lake Community Management had received a couple of calls from homeowners complaining about the man living in a van.

“He then is gone all day and comes back at night,” said Annette Zukaitis, community manager of the company, in an email. “Because he doesn’t live there, we cannot make him move, as they are public streets.”

Meanwhile, Jamie Smith, who lives with her 9-year-old daughter in an apartment in east Bend, said she wrote to the city when a group of people parked a camper outside her bedroom window. They appeared to be doing drugs, left trash along the road and often screamed at each other until they eventually moved, Smith said.

“Living behind my bedroom is not OK,” Smith said. “There needs to be some kind of limitation added to this ordinance because it isn’t working.”

While enforcement is complicated, the city is taking steps to address the root of the problem – chronic homelessness, City Councilor Nathan Boddie said.

“It’s a symptom of Bend being where we are right now with our population and the affordability issue,” Boddie said. “And it’s also a situation of human health and mental illness. We can’t just sort of write this away on paper; we have to fix the problem.”

Law enforcement, homeless advocates, city officials and health care providers are working to figure out why people might be chronically homeless or sleeping in their cars in the first place, Boddie said.

For instance, getting people who are chronically homeless into housing where they can receive social or health services is one option. Although the group can’t solve the problems overnight, it helps to prevent them in the long run, Boddie said. That would be more effective than making stricter rules to ban car camping, he said.

“The reality is that most of that activity is already illegal, so anything that council does, it’s already against the law,” Boddie said. “More regulation and sort of overstripping the way our police operate isn’t going to help. It’s an expensive way to deal with the problem in an ineffective manner.”

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