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News / Northwest

Portland to clear sidewalk tents to settle suit with people with disabilities

By CLAIRE RUSH, Associated Press/Report for America
Published: May 25, 2023, 2:35pm

PORTLAND — Portland will remove tents blocking sidewalks under a tentative settlement announced Thursday in a lawsuit brought by people with disabilities who said sprawling homeless encampments prevent them from navigating Oregon’s most populous city.

The federal class action lawsuit, filed in September, alleged that the city violated the American with Disabilities Act by allowing tents to obstruct sidewalks. The plaintiffs included a caretaker and nine people with disabilities who use wheelchairs, scooters, canes and walkers to get around. The settlement still requires approval from the City Council and the U.S. District Court in Portland.

The settlement comes after City Council members voted in November to create at least three large, designated campsites where homeless people will be allowed to camp and ban the rest of the roughly 700 encampments scattered across the city. That ban won’t take effect until the sanctioned campsites are opened.

Under the tentative lawsuit settlement, the city must prioritize removing tents that block sidewalks and clear at least 500 sidewalk-blocking encampments every year for the next five years. If there are fewer than 500 such campsites in a given year, the city will be found to be in compliance if it clears all that are blocking sidewalks.

The city must operate a 24-hour hotline for reporting tents that are blocking sidewalks and create an online reporting portal where people can upload photos. It will create a publicly accessible database of reported campsites and actions taken in response.

Portland will also limit its distribution of tents to homeless people and post “no camping” signs in areas where sidewalks are frequently blocked.

“People with disabilities deserve to use transportation corridors to pursue their daily activities unimpeded,” one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, John DiLorenzo, said in an email, adding that he was hopeful the settlement would make it easier for people with disabilities to navigate the city.

Under the tentative deal, the city will not admit wrongdoing or liability.

The settlement is expected to be presented to the City Council next week.

“I strongly believe that everyone should have access to sidewalks to navigate the City safely, and this is especially true for Portlanders with mobility challenges,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said in an emailed statement. “The settlement that will come before Council next week will help prioritize the City’s efforts to ensure accessibility to sidewalks.”

The plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit described how unnavigable sidewalks complicate their lives and sometimes put them in harm’s way.

Among them is Steve Jackson, who is legally blind and uses a cane to walk. He said tents prevent him from navigating the sidewalk and accessing bus stops.

“Often there’s tents blocking the entire sidewalk, where I don’t see them because they weren’t there the day before, and I hit the tent and then people are mad at me and think I’m attacking them,” Jackson said during a news conference in September.

About 13% of Portlanders live with a disability, according to the lawsuit, including 6% with mobility impairments and 2.4% with visual impairments.

The city must devote at least $8 million in the 2023-2024 fiscal year to making sure the conditions of the settlement are met, and at least $3 million annually for the following four fiscal years, according to a copy of the settlement shared with reporters by DiLorenzo. It has also agreed to pay $5,000 to each of the 10 plaintiffs and reasonable attorney fees.

Oregon’s homelessness crisis has been fueled by an affordable housing shortage, a lack of mental health treatment, high drug addiction rates and the coronavirus pandemic.

In Multnomah County, home to Portland, there were more than 5,000 people experiencing homelessness in 2022 — a 30% increase compared with 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to federal point-in-time count data.

Claire Rush is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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