By Heather Marek, Legal Intern
In recent years, poverty and homelessness have deepened throughout the country, and Oregon has not been immune. According to HUD, between 2014 and 2015, the number of homeless Oregonians increased nine percent, the third highest increase nationwide. In that same time, Oregon experienced the largest growth of any state in its chronically homeless population: sixty percent. Due to a severe shortage of affordable housing and the high number of residents with no place to call home, Oregon cities including Eugene and Portland have declared a housing and homelessness “state of emergency”.
In Oregon and elsewhere, the response to this crisis has been to further criminalize homelessness, making it against the law to engage in basic life-sustaining activities. Between 2011 and 2014, there was a spike in the number of cities nationwide that outlawed camping (60 percent), sleeping in vehicles (119 percent), sitting or lying down in particular places (43 percent), begging (25 percent), and loitering and vagrancy (35 percent). These laws have been the focus of national and international scrutiny, receiving condemnation by the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and the UN Human Rights Committee.
Treating poverty and homelessness like crimes makes no sense. These laws punish and dehumanize people who are already vulnerable and struggling, many of whom are families, veterans, and disabled. Hefty fines and criminal records create additional barriers and make it harder to find housing or work. This strategy does nothing to address the root causes of homelessness like unemployment, domestic violence, mental illness, and lack of affordable housing. These ineffective schemes often violate the rights of the unhoused.
The ACLU of Oregon has seen an alarming uptick in the adoption of these unfair laws locally. The latest comes out of the City of Brookings, just north of the California border. In Brookings, it is now an offense to engage in so-called “abusive solicitation.” Solicitation, defined here as “an in-person request made to obtain an immediate donation of money or other item of value,” is protected speech under the U.S. and Oregon Constitutions. (In fact, the ACLU of Oregon successfully challenged an anti-solicitation ordinance in 2009.) So, Brookings devised this special kind of solicitation, hoping it could somehow circumvent protections because the City deemed it to be “abusive.”
Existing laws already prohibit abusive behaviors such as violence and harassment. This makes the true purpose of Brookings’ ordinance clear. “Abusive solicitation” is a euphemism for panhandling. We are deeply concerned it will be used to target unhoused residents seeking a helping hand.
For this reason, the ACLU of Oregon sent a letter to the Brookings City Council outlining our concerns and the city’s potential liability if it enforces this ordinance.
The “abusive solicitation” ordinance tells people to stop soliciting once the person they approach declines their request. To be clear, lawmakers cannot dictate how much speech is enough. Individuals do not become less free to express themselves simply because the person listening to the speech “declines” or is not persuaded. Free expression is a right, even if it is persistent or unpopular.
The “abusive solicitation” ordinance also prohibits using words, signs, or gestures that are “offensive.” The U.S. and Oregon Constitutions protect a broad spectrum of speech that may be considered offensive to some. In fact, many important messages throughout history – regarding civil rights, war, sexuality – have been deemed “offensive” or “threatening” at the time because they challenged social conventions.
Solicitation is an important way of conveying information, whether it involves an unhoused resident with a sign that says, “Veteran – no work – anything helps,” a religious group promoting a certain faith, or a political organization advocating for a cause. Exposure to diverse people and ideas, even when it makes us uncomfortable, is fundamental to a free and democratic society.
Brookings’ “abusive solicitation” ordinance is just a new iteration of an outdated and incorrect way of thinking: that we can deal with societal problems like poverty and homelessness by punishing the poor and unhoused, condemning them to the fringes of society. This approach is cruel, ineffective, and it violates civil rights and liberties. The ACLU of Oregon, with its members and allies in Brookings and across the state, will continue to oppose these regressive laws and support real solutions.