By CLAIRE RUSH – Associated Press/Report for America
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — People with disabilities in Portland, Oregon, have sued the city, saying they can’t navigate its sidewalks because of sprawling homeless encampments.
The federal class action lawsuit says the city has violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by allowing homeless people’s tents to block city sidewalks, making it difficult for people using wheelchairs, walkers or canes to use them.
“The entire class of persons with disabilities are regularly deprived of the benefits of services of the city of Portland,” said John DiLorenzo, lead counsel for the plaintiffs.
The suit was filed Tuesday in US District Court in Portland.
The plaintiffs include nine people with disabilities and a caretaker. Among the plaintiffs is Keith Martin, a 71-year-old Portland resident who has used a wheelchair since having a stroke three years ago.
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“I couldn’t get to my breakfast in the morning because there was a tent covering the whole sidewalk,” Martin said. “I was forced onto the street and narrowly missed a streetcar that came around the corner.”
Oregon’s homelessness crisis has been fueled by a housing shortage, the coronavirus pandemic and high drug addiction rates. Federal data from the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 9% of teenagers and adults in Oregon had illicit drug use disorders in 2020. That year, the state also ranked last in access to drug addiction treatment, according to the survey.
The class action suit seeks to require the city to clear all sidewalks of tent encampments and debris, and to “construct, purchase, or otherwise provide for emergency shelters in which to house the unsheltered persons” who may be affected.
Such measures would make sidewalks accessible for people with disabilities in a safe manner while providing a safe place for unhoused people, DiLorenzo said.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office said the mayor is meeting with the city attorney before providing comment.
About 13% of Portlanders live with a disability, according to the lawsuit, including 6% with mobility impairments and 2.4% with visual impairments.
Plaintiff Steve Jackson, 47, 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.
There were about 3,000 unsheltered people living in Multnomah County, home to Portland, during the most recent point-in-time count in January 2022, county figures show.
The Portland City Council declared a state of emergency on homelessness in 2015 and has extended it five times since then. The measure, now set to expire in 2025, reduces the bureaucratic hurdles surrounding the creation of homeless shelters.
Despite the city’s years-long emergency measure, the estimated number of people experiencing homelessness spiked 25% in the Portland area between 2020 and 2022, according to point-in-time counts reported to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
This year alone, Wheeler has issued four emergency declarations to address homelessness issues. Most recently in August, he expanded a previous declaration that prohibits camping along high-speed corridors such as highways to include key walking routes to K-12 schools.
The state has wrestled with a debate over the best way to reduce homelessness. Some business groups have called for more encampment sweeps and stricter enforcement of anti-camping ordinances, while others want more investment in social services and affordable housing.
Oregon lawmakers earlier this year approved a budget that includes $400 million to address homelessness and housing.
Claire Rush is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Claire on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ClaireARush.
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