City Government, Springfield

Springfield to update camping ordinances 

SPRINGFIELD — Homelessness is a complex problem significantly impacting Oregon communities like Springfield, and the city has begun examining its camping ordinances to ensure they are in compliance with new state regulations. 

As a result of a 2021 state law, House Bill 3115, cities cannot ban camping or sleeping in public spaces, as long as the regulations are “reasonable.” The new state law requires cities to update their ordinances and policies by July, or otherwise comply with federal court rulings.

“We could also be held responsible for doing nothing,” said councilor Kori Rodley, during this week’s council meeting. “Any policy decision we make could potentially put someone in harm because of our lack of involvement.” 

Springfield’s ordinance does not comply with the federal court rulings or the new state law because it bans sleeping outdoors in anything from a sleeping bag to a lean-to or other structure on public property, said Mary Bridget Smith, city attorney. It also fines people up to $750 for non-compliance. Councilors inquired about lowering the cost of the fine. 

“I refer to those as being poverty taxes,” Rodley said. “You’re basically taxing people who are already poor, or navigating poverty, and it could be an impediment to actually getting into housing or services.” 

A lack of affordable housing, limited shelter capacity, and scarce mental and behavioral health resources contribute to the steady increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness. 

Rulings in Martin v. Boise and Blake v. Grants Pass that favor people challenging camping bans have ruled the Eighth Amendment means a governmental entity cannot “criminalize conduct that is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless – namely sitting, lying, or sleeping.”

According to Martin, reasonable restrictions may be imposed on the use of public spaces based on where, when and how it is done, and full bans may be imposed if there are enough shelter beds with no barriers to access.

In Blake, the court ruled it doesn’t matter if a prohibition is civil or criminal, as long as people can keep warm and dry by the use of a sleeping bag or a tent. It also takes into account whether people are denied shelter based on their gender, age, or another constitutionally protected attribute, their lack of sobriety or their criminal histories.

HB 3115 followed the ruling in Martin and the initial decision in Blake. The state law requires any city or county law regulating the acts of sitting, lying, sleeping or keeping warm and dry outside to be objectively reasonable to people, including those experiencing homelessness.

Smith clarified the scope of the changes is narrow and applies only to publicly-owned properties, like parks and sidewalks. 

“I know a lot of people see the mess left behind, and it’s not that they don’t care. It’s a deep concern,” said Victoria Doyle, city councilor. “And I don’t think that people who are homeless should have to live in that either.” 

HB 3115 sets state restrictions for how cities can enforce anti-camping laws and requires local governments around the state to adopt policies that are “objectively reasonable” in regulating when, where and how people can live outdoors. 

Springfield isn’t trying to take a template from anywhere, Smith said, but talking about what others are doing can “be a nice jumping-off point.”

She presented on time, place and manner restrictions in other cities:

Time restrictions included a requirement to move after 24 hours, except in certain circumstances, and prohibitions limiting camping to overnight hours.

Place restrictions included prohibiting camping in residential areas, near water, on streets, in rights-of-way, parking lots, and close to trails and other park features.

Manner restrictions included limits on the size of sleeping areas and prohibitions on burning, storing personal property and making too much noise after 10 p.m.

The council will hold public hearings on the proposed ordinance changes on April 17 and have reserved time during a meeting on May 1 as a placeholder for a second public hearing as needed.