Disabled Portland Residents Sue City for Surrendering Sidewalks to the Homeless

A 66-year-old woman who had a bottle thrown at her as she maneuvered around a Portland, Ore. homeless camp in her electric wheelchair.

A 62-year-old longtime Portland resident who relies on a wheelchair and a service dog, and who was assaulted, spat on, and sprayed with mace by homeless people in her neighborhood.

A 47-year-old man with a visual disability who walks in the busy street to get around the tents and garbage that clog the sidewalks in his Portland neighborhood.

These are among the ten plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court that accuses the City of Portland of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. According to the lawsuit, the city is failing to keep its sidewalks clear of debris and tent encampments, and failing to ensure the sidewalks are accessible to people with disabilities and visual impairments. The lawsuit seeks a court order to ensure the sidewalks are cleared and maintained, and to force the city to build or purchase new shelter space.

“The target is not the unsheltered people,” John DiLorenzo, one of the lawyers behind the lawsuit, said in an interview with National Review. “We want them to be sheltered in a humane way. Our adversaries are the politicians who are adopting policies that only encourage what we loosely call the homeless industrial complex.”

In recent years, homeless encampments on the sidewalks in busy neighborhoods and business corridors have become increasingly common in the Rose City, DiLorenzo said. For people with disabilities who often rely on wheelchairs, electric scooters, walkers, and canes to get around, those encampments are particularly burdensome and dangerous to negotiate.

Camping on the sidewalk is technically not allowed in Portland, DiLorenzo noted, but for years “the city of Portland has done virtually nothing about it, other than, from time to time, a series of sweeps that are pretty inhumane and just move people around.”

According to the lawsuit, sidewalks, crosswalks, and paved paths count as public services covered by the ADA. The plaintiffs in the case – along with “all persons with mobility disabilities who live or work in Portland” – “are being denied full and equal access to the City’s sidewalks and subjected to unlawful or hazardous conditions,” the lawsuit states.

Attempts by National Review to reach Portland City Attorney Robert Taylor via phone and email for comment were unsuccessful on Wednesday.

In the wake of the George Floyd riots of 2020, Portland has endured a surge in crime and an exploding homeless crisis, which many critics have blamed on the city’s far-left policies and leaders. Some residents have started fleeing the city, and some businesses are complaining about losing clients over safety concerns and the city’s inability to provide basic services.

A January survey of the Portland metro area found that more than 5,000 residents of Multnomah County were homeless at the time, more than 3,000 of whom were unsheltered and sleeping on the street, according to the lawsuit. DiLorenzo said some leaders argue the homeless problem is due to a general lack of housing and high rent costs, but he doesn’t buy it.

Instead, DiLorenzo said much of the city’s homeless problem is driven by the deinstitutionalization of the severely mentally ill, and by drug abuse, a problem he believes was made worse by a 2020 ballot measure that decriminalized small amounts of hard drugs.

“Most of the people who are homeless can’t pay any rent,” DiLorenzo said. “They can’t because they are hopelessly addicted to methamphetamine, fentanyl, and all the drugs that Oregon has recently decriminalized.”

In recent years, homeless encampments have become “front and center” in the city, he said, popping up on busy sidewalks in prominent business corridors – Old Town, Chinatown, Downtown, the Pearl District, the Central Eastside Industrial District, the Lloyd District. Photos included with the lawsuit show rows of tents and wooden barriers erected in the middle of city sidewalks and surrounded by garbage and drug paraphernalia. This is a particular problem for the 12.9 percent of Portlanders who live with disabilities, including 6 percent of residents with ambulatory impairments and 2.4 percent of residents with a visual impairment who rely on the city’s sidewalks to access critical public amenities, according to the lawsuit.

Speaking during a press conference Wednesday, plaintiff Tiana Tozer, a 54-year-old Paralympic medalist who was permanently injured by a drunk driver when she was 20, said city policies that seemingly allow public camping “anywhere and everywhere” add “insult to injury for all Oregonians with disabilities by impacting our mobility, which hampers our independence.”

Plaintiff Steve Jackson, 47, who is legally blind and relies on the city’s sidewalks and public transportation to get to work and back, said public camping has gotten worse in recent years. He often encounters tents blocking the sidewalk, and people sleeping across the sidewalk.

“I don’t see them because they weren’t there the day before,” he said. “And I hit the tent, and people are mad at me. They think I’m attacking them, but really I don’t see them. So, I have to go into the street to get around them. And then I’m in traffic.”

“I’m just trying to go to work,” he added.

Other plaintiffs include Barbara Jacobsen, 62, and Pauline Long, 66. Jacobsen uses an electric wheelchair and has a service dog who alerts her to oncoming seizures and breathing ailments. According to the lawsuit, Jacosbsen was recently assaulted by homeless people outside her home, has been spat on, and has been maced, according to the lawsuit. She now carries a knife for protection.

Long also uses an electric wheelchair, and has been harassed by homeless people living in tent encampments in her neighborhood, “including having a full bottle of liquid thrown at her for running over a sandwich wrapper with her wheelchair,” the lawsuit states.

Another plaintiff, Keith Martin, 71, who founded the state’s first professional ballet company and once volunteered as a homeless advocate, was partially paralyzed after a stroke three years ago, the lawsuit says. During Wednesday’s press conference, he said, “I have never in all my time here been as afraid as I am right now to go outside day or night. I worry about my son walking three blocks to Lincoln High School. He sees needles on the ground every single day.”

Martin, who uses a scooter to get around the streets, described encountering an encampment on the sidewalk and being forced into the street where he was almost struck by a car.

“I’m here because I love this city, I want it to be a better city, and I want it to be the crown jewel that it once was,” Martin said during the press conference.

DiLorenzo said city leaders have done a “decent job” recently of clearing out downtown homeless camps. But the campers just move elsewhere, and typically come back a few days later. He said the city hires contractors to clear the sidewalks, and “the contractors tell people they can just move two blocks away, and that’s fine as far as they’re concerned.”

The lawsuit is calling for a court order requiring the city to clear the tents and debris from the sidewalks, with a ten-foot buffer on each side, and to keep the sidewalks accessible. “Part of the relief that we want is an assurance that once the sidewalks are made accessible to people with disabilities again, that the circumstance is not going to return,” DiLorenzo said.

He said he anticipates that as a defense city lawyers will point to the 2018 decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Martin v. City of Boise that ruled that cities cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances if they do not have enough shelter beds for their homeless population. To counter that, the lawsuit calls for an order requiring the city to “construct, purchase or otherwise provide for emergency shelters in which to house the unsheltered persons affected by the Court’s judgement.”

DiLorenzo said there are lots of empty warehouses in Portland, and “the city could purchase that kind of space pretty cheaply, rehab it to accommodate shelter beds.” Although many people living on the streets would likely prefer not to go to a shelter, having enough beds would enable city leaders to enforce anti-camping ordinances and take measures to keep the sidewalks and public spaces clean. City leaders, he said, have a responsibility to act.

“The government took steps to allow this to get out of control,” DiLorenzo said. “I think they now have a responsibility to address the problem they helped create.”

Reporting from National Review.