MEDFORD, Ore. — As the City of Medford considers an ordinance to restrict camping and sleeping in public places, a group of local attorneys has said that they will sue the City on behalf of homeless people who could be punished or displaced by the new policies.
According to a statement from attorney Justin Rosas, a team of local lawyers plans to hold a press conference at Alba Park on Thursday to unveil the lawsuit "on behalf of a number of our unhoused neighbors."
"Lawyers for Justice, a team of local attorneys dedicated to providing a voice to those too often unspoken for in our society, has commissioned a crew of volunteers led by the wonderful Jim Yarbrough who have been walking the greenway, meeting with the unhoused, hearing their experiences and then incorporating those into declarations. We have walked alongside them," Rosas wrote.
"It is clear that the City has failed to meet the standards enunciated in Boise v. Martin and that often the reports of space at Rogue Retreat, who does wonderful work, are overstated and exaggerated," Rosas continued. "A few minutes along the greenway and anyone would be able to tell that we do not have sufficient low barrier housing or services in our city."
Boise v. Martin is one of several court cases, including Blake v. Grants Pass, that Medford has attempted to take into account within the proposed ordinance. In the former case, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that homeless people cannot be punished for sleeping outside on public property in the absence of adequate alternatives.
Medford's original proposal would ban tent camping on public property year-round, but allow sleeping without a tent in some areas. During the summer months, sleeping along the Greenway or in Prescott Park would also be prohibited. Opponents of the proposal have sharply criticized the blanket ban on tent camping and the steep penalties that would accompany violations.
Supporters of the ordinance argue that stiffer penalties are needed to discourage violations, and that the bans on sleeping and tent camping on public property — particularly during the summer — are needed to help prevent wildfires and other safety hazards.
Rosas said that Lawyers for Justice encourages the Medford city council to vote down the ordinance, send back previous ordinances for repeal, and start a Boise commission to examine the "City's failure to provide adequate care or treatment to our unhoused."
The City Attorney's office issued a statement later on Wednesday, saying that it "respectfully disagrees" with Rosas' characterization.
"The proposed amendment is not a city-wide ban on sleeping on public property, but instead the proposed ordinance spells out when, where and how people may rest/sleep on public property," the City Attorney's office said. "The Martin v. Boise and the Blake v. Grants Pass cases drew distinctions between city-wide bans on sleeping outside, which are only permissible if there are shelter beds available for all unhoused individuals, and time-place-manner regulations."
The City Attorney's office cited part of the Blake opinion, which stated that Grants Pass could "implement time and place restrictions" and ban tents in public parks without banning sleeping in public places. A bill in the Oregon House would also allow cities to implement "reasonable time-place-manner regulations" for sleeping on public property.
The City of Medford said that the city council it will consider changes to the city's prohibited camping ordinance on Thursday evening and during a special meeting the next day at noon.
EDIT: This story was updated Wednesday evening with comment from the City of Medford.