By editorial board • 

Cautious approach necessary when banning public camping

How does a jurisdiction balance the rights of the homeless with those of other residents? 

In response to the growing size and visibility of homelessness, McMinnville has passed several ordinances. The extent to which they target the homeless, rather than simply “behavioral issues” — depends on whom you ask.

An RV camping ban and parking structure code of conduct were created to rid public spaces of makeshift dwellings. The Third Street smoking ban was enacted in the name of quality of life, but carries a subtext of keeping the homeless off the city’s most pedestrian-trafficked street. 

These are all fairly simple ordinances — legally, at least. That won’t be the case with the city’s proposed further step of banning public camping.

The prohibition would be implemented in conjunction with a camping program being crafted by a homelessness subcommittee chaired by Councilor Remy Drabkin. Modeled after one in Eugene, the program would establish temporary camping spots on properties donated by landowners. The Champion Team, a McMinnville nonprofit, has agreed to oversee the effort.

However, even with expanded shelter at the Gospel Rescue Mission and new vehicular camping program, McMinnville might still be vulnerable to legal challenge.
The American Civil Liberties Union is prioritizing challenges to laws that “criminalize homelessness,” and camping ordinances have become major targets. They are based on a 2015 Department of Justice opinion that sleeping is an essential function of life, so engaging in it outdoors cannot be outlawed unless a city provides adequate shelter space as an alternative.

It amounts to status vs conduct. A person’s conduct can be criminalized, but not his status.

According to the DOJ, when camping outside is involuntary (because adaquate shelter space is not available), it becomes part of a person’s status. And  the courts have held criminalizing that behavior constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

In an initial discussion, Planning Director Heather Richards said the goal isn’t to ban a person’s right to lie down for the night, rather to specify places where lying down is permitted or not permitted.

The city still needs to engage in plenty of legal work before sending a proposal to the council, as intention and execution can be tricky to correctly define in the eyes of a court. The city is eager to take another step toward meeting homeless needs while still safeguarding quality of life for its taxpayers, but we urge a prudent approach on the matter.

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