City Government, Springfield

Springfield camping rule engages crowd

SPRINGFIELD – The Springfield City Council on Monday continued the process of creating new code to determine when, where and how unhoused people would be allowed to camp in the city.

While the meeting was only the first of a handful of ordinance readings, council members showed early disagreements on what a final draft might look like, all before a contentious public engagement process began.

Springfield’s current 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 – a cost that will be lowered in the new ordinance. 

Councilors discussed when and where unhoused people might be allowed to camp within city limits – considering time, place, and manner restrictions. 

“The ordinance is quite restrictive in a sense that sidewalks in front of businesses, all those kinds of places are not allowed to be camped on. We wrote that in there,” said councilor Joe Pishioneri. “We can’t just say, ‘so much for the state law, we’re gonna disregard it.’ We can’t do that.” 

The effort to change city code stems from Martin v. Boise, a 2018 Ninth Circuit Court ruling that determined cities could not cite people for camping outside if no shelter space was available. Any citation would violate their Eighth Amendment rights.

A 2021 Oregon state law then codified the ruling, saying cities could establish “objectively reasonable” restrictions on camping on public property. The law prohibits cities from banning camping or sleeping in public spaces, though it allows for certain regulations.

“The current camping ordinance can’t stay,” said mayor Sean VanGordon. “We have to figure out what to do. I also want to acknowledge that homelessness is a problem. That’s huge. And we’re only really talking about a sliver of this issue.” 

Time limits, restricting the use of warming fires to ensure public safety, and keeping shelters away from waterways have all been topics of early council discussions.

During the public hearing, Kris McAlister, executive director for Carry it Forward, a nonprofit that serves unhoused people in Lane County, addressed the council. 

“I find the ordinance to be in the spirit of protecting the city’s interests but not necessarily in the body of work on the state’s expectations. We need to implore people to not rely so much on county dollars and nonprofits,” he said. “We have people here who need to actually be taken care of. So our people who grew up here know that when things change, when things get bad, that our city has our back.” 

Others in attendance disagreed. 

“I urge you to develop guidelines that direct people to the help we’ve already provided, and simply not enable them to continue,” said Lane County Commissioner David Loveall. “Our community is here to help, not facilitate a money pit of daily cleanups or extra enforcement costs. That would continue a downward spiral of inhumane conditions that would litter our city if we don’t get this toxic charity model off our chest.” 

According to the Springfield Police Department, in 2022 there were 674 instances of unlawful camp setups; 74 of those were non-dispatch calls, and of the 600 excess calls, only 73 expected a degree of policing to be taken.

“I think we all know this is a really challenging, complicated and difficult conversation. The solutions aren’t short term,  it’s a long-term problem,” said councilor Michelle Webber. “I agree that the ordinance is written in the best way it can be at this moment to help solve some of these issues. And to support our business owners. And our residents. And to have some compassion for those that don’t have a home to live in.” 

Springfield has until July to ensure that its laws comply with state law. The issue will be the subject of a May 1 meeting, where there will be additional time for public comment and the final draft of the ordinance will be read for the first time.