Tell the City Council to support Order 68 – Councilors Trevorrow’s and Rodriguez’ amendment to stop the sweeps of homeless camps!
Do you care about the dignity and well-being of our unhoused neighbors in Portland? Do you want to make a difference in their lives and in our community? If so, then you need to act now and make your voice heard!
The Portland City Council will consider a historic proposal that would institute a moratorium on the cruel and inhumane practice of sweeping homeless camps until April 30th. This proposal, sponsored by Councilor Anna Trevorrow and Councilor Roberto Rodriguez, would amend the city code to allow unhoused individuals to camp in public spaces, with some reasonable exceptions (certain distances from schools and other defined areas). The numbers of unhoused individuals in Portland are such that even with shelter capacity expansion, people are going to be sleeping outside; this policy will prevent the forcible separation from life-sustaining belongings during the coldest and deadliest months of the year.
Order 68 will save lives this winter
Encampment sweeps and camping bans significantly increase morbidity and mortality, overdoses, hospitalizations, and serious infections among unhoused people. In April 2023, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a study showing that sweeps, camping bans, and move along orders forcibly displace unhoused people and are the wrong approach to homelessness because these laws and policies lead to substantial increases in deaths, hospitalizations, and life-threatening infections.
While unsheltered homelessness is always a public health crisis—the forcible displacement of unsheltered people “mak[es] a bad situation worse.” This is because laws and policies that criminalize homelessness and forcibly displace unhoused people compound their trauma and suffering, and, ultimately, further harm their health and shorten their lives. The harms created by forcible displacement are particularly severe for Black people and people of color.
Moreover, while sweeps are always dangerous, it is particularly important to stop encampment sweeps during the winter and in extreme weather when survival outside is the most challenging. This is why public health experts support banning winter encampment sweeps as a “healthful first step” to mitigating the dangers of unsheltered homelessness and criminalization.
Order 68 will help more people living unsheltered in Portland connect to housing and shelter options
There are two ways that Order 68 will help more unhoused people access shelter and housing.
First, sweeps and camping bans are costly and ineffective; by stopping sweeps, Portland can invest public resources in services, housing, and shelter options that actually address homelessness. A federal report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found that encampment sweeps entail considerable costs for cities but that without substantial investment in services, housing, and shelter options such sweeps fail to provide a resolution to homeless encampments.
Cities spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to clear encampments; this means cities are wasting limited public resources to destroy the makeshift shelters and personal property of our unhoused neighbors. Moreover, sweeps do nothing to help unhoused individuals access needed resources or transition towards permanent housing; instead, sweeps destroy whatever stability people living in encampments worked hard to create.
Leaders from HUD and homelessness policy centers recognize that providing unhoused people dignified, individualized services that connect them to permanent housing is more effective than clearing encampments. Gary Painter, Homelessness Policy Research Institute director at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California points out that budgets must be looked at holistically: “If you think that providing housing is expensive, you have to think carefully about what not providing housing costs.”
Second, sweeps make it harder to connect unhoused people with shelter and permanent housing. By stopping sweeps, Order 68 will help city staff and service providers build and maintain trust with unsheltered people; this trust is critical for connecting unhoused people to services, shelter, and, ultimately, permanent housing.
Encampment sweeps are state-sanctioned violence that forcibly displace unhoused people from public land while disrupting their connections to community and medical and social service providers. Sweeps sever unhoused peoples’ connection to health care and social service providers. Moreover, sweeps undermine unhoused people’s trust in service providers, law enforcement, local governments, and the larger community.
Trust can take a long time to build, but it can quickly be destroyed in a sweep. This loss of trust can prolong people’s experience of and vulnerability to homelessness because health care, connection to public benefits, and mental health services are all critical supports for helping unhoused people transition to and remain stably housed.
Order 68 will temporarily stop encampment sweeps and camping bans that are inherently racist and disproportionately harm unsheltered Black people and people of color
In 2023, the Portland City Council adopted the goal of “[a]lways using a lens that prioritizes racial, social and justice equity.” But laws and policies that criminalize homelessness and forcibly displace poor and unhoused people are inherently racist. Modern bans on public camping and loitering are rooted in anti-vagrancy laws that entered U.S. law and legal culture through colonialism and then proliferated as a tool used to enforce racist legal agendas like the Black Codes.
The histories of violence and oppression intrinsic to vagrancy prohibitions continue to harm and traumatize poor communities of color today through cities’ enforcement of camping and loitering bans. Alaina Boyer, Director of Implementation Research at the National Health Care for the Homeless Council points out that “[h]istoric forced displacement events have caused categorical harm, loss of community, safety, and culture” and that “[f]orced displacement due to encampment sweeps results in the same harm with negative impacts to health, safety, and trust.”
Recognizing that racial discrimination is intrinsic to laws that criminalize homelessness, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed concern about the growing number of U.S. municipalities using laws and policies to criminalize homelessness and called on the United States to “abolish laws and policies that criminalize homelessness.”
Portland’s encampment sweeps and camping ban also have a racist impact: the vast majority of unsheltered Black people and people of color live in downtown Portland. The city tends to focus sweeps and enforcement of its camping ban on these same downtown locations. As a result, Black people and people of color have been disproportionately harmed by the violence of the city’s sweeps and forced displacement.
To cultivate racial justice and equity in Portland, we must abolish the laws, policies, and practices rooted in the violence of colonialism, slavery, and white supremacy. By pausing encampment sweeps and camping bans this winter, Order 68 provides an important first step.
Order 68 recognizes the constitutional rights of our unhoused neighbors
Laws and policies that ban camping and use encampment sweeps to push unhoused people out of public view have been found to violate constitutional rights. First, people without houses have the same right to their property as those of us with houses. Encampments are not only where unhoused people sleep, it is also where people create makeshift shelter and store their most important personal possessions.
During an encampment sweep, when the city forcibly removes unhoused people and their property from public places, the city typically collects and destroys large amounts of personal possessions like tents, sleeping bags, blankets, medication, medical equipment, and identification and legal documents. Courts across the country have held that the seizure and destruction of unhoused people’s property during sweeps is unconstitutional, both because the unreasonable seizure of property violates people’s Fourth Amendment rights and the summary destruction of property without providing a meaningful opportunity to challenge such wreckage violates people’s Fourteenth Amendment rights.
Second, when encampment sweeps force unhoused people to abandon their makeshift shelters in high-traffic public places to relocate to isolated and secluded areas, it can constitute unlawful state-created danger in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.
In Portland, frequent, large encampment sweeps and the designation of “emphasis areas” has left unhoused people with almost nowhere to go. As a result, unsheltered people in the city are being pushed further to the margins. The situation is made worse by continuing to conduct sweeps even as harsh winter weather rapidly approaches. I urge you to pass Order 68 to temporarily stop encampment sweeps and the forcible displacement of unhoused people during the winter.
How to give testimony
The City Council meeting is on Monday November 20th, 2023 at 5pm. Please wait for Order 68-23/24 to come up. The council will provide an opportunity for public comment when it gets to Order 68-23/24. If you ask to speak on this item before it comes up, you’ll be asked to wait.
Option 1: In Person at City Hall
If you can attend in person, go to:
City Council Chambers
389 Congress Street
2nd Floor of City Hall
Portland, ME 04101
Option 2: In Writing via Email
To submit written public comment on an agenda item, send an email to: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. To make sure councilors see your message, try to submit messages before Sunday November 19th, 12pm.
My name is <your name> and I reside at <your address>.
I urge you to support the amendment proposed by Councilors Anna Trevorrow and Roberto Rodriguez which would institute a moratorium on the sweeps of homeless camps. This amendment would allow people experiencing homelessness to camp in public spaces, with some reasonable restrictions, until April 30th.
This amendment is not only humane and compassionate, but also sensible and effective. Sweeps are a failed policy that harms both the unhoused and the housed communities. They violate the human rights and dignity of people who have nowhere else to go. They disrupt their access to services, health care, and harm reduction. They increase the risk of hospitalizations, overdose, and death. They also waste public money and resources that could be better invested in housing and supportive services.
Sweeps do not reduce homelessness. They only displace it. They also create more hostility, resentment, and stigma towards people who are already marginalized and vulnerable. They erode the trust and cooperation between the unhoused community and the city officials and service providers who are trying to help them.
That’s why I urge you to vote in favor of this amendment. Please show your leadership and courage by standing up for the rights and well-being of our unhoused neighbors. Please show your vision and wisdom by supporting a policy that is based on evidence and best practices. Please show your humanity and compassion by ending the cruel and ineffective practice of sweeps.