By Jeb Bladine • President / Publisher • 

Whatchamacolumn: Homeless camps back in the news

It’s clear, as reporter Scott Unger continues News-Register coverage of homelessness in McMinnville, that the laws of physics have analogies in human behavior: When you squeeze one part of a balloon, another part expands, and that’s how homeless camps respond to enforcement of laws against illegal camping.

Consider the past decade: Homeless camping downtown triggered a public outcry leading to aggressive enforcement, and camp sites spread to city streets, Marsh Lane and Dustin Court. One controversial response was to let homeless RVs turn parking lots at Joe Dancer Park into a homeless RV campground. When the program drew strong public protest, residents of that well-kept homeless village moved back onto public streets from whence they came.

Now, as illegally parked RVs continue to be confiscated, Marsh Lane has become more of a tent city with growing piles of debris and garbage.

Behind the scenes, there’s a complicated, contentious body of court decisions on enforcement of homeless camping laws. It began in 2018 when a Boise panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals declared: “ … as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”

One-time Oregon congressional candidate Diarmuid O’Scannlain, now a senior 9th Circuit Court judge, joined 14 other judges this year in protesting the original decision. O’Scannlain wrote that it wrongfully forced cities “to surrender their sidewalks and other public places to homeless encampments,” and that the full 9th Circuit Court should “reconsider our unfortunate constitutional mistake.”

Cities can enforce limits on sleeping at certain locations and in certain times. As Unger reported last week, McMinnville police recently filed 36 prohibited camping notices and five arrests for prohibited camping in a three-day period.

However, results of enforcing homeless camping laws in McMinnville are little more than whack-a-mole. We haven’t solved homeless camping problems, and we’re paying high public costs just moving them from one place to another.

We’ve tried everything but city-run homeless camps. Portland, in contrast, opened its first of several city-sanctioned homeless camps in July. Responses from homeless residents range from “safer than on the streets” to “feels like a minimum-security prison.”

McMinnville toyed with that idea in 2019, but surrendered to citizen opposition; Sheridan City Council discussed similar ideas in August.

Perhaps in McMinnville, despite the controversy, it’s time to test those waters again.

Jeb Bladine can be reached at or 503-687-1223.


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