The City Council last week approved updates to the city code chapter on illegal camping. (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Four years ago, an Idaho court decision ruled that the homeless cannot be punished for sleeping outside on public property if they have no other options. The U.S. Supreme Court later agreed.

A year later in Oregon, a case in Grants Pass reaffirmed the right of homeless individuals to sleep outside. Then in 2021, the Oregon Legislature approved House Bill 3115 that in short, has a requirement for local governments that any restrictions on illegal camping must be “objectively reasonable.” 

City governments are facing a July 1 deadline to approve municipal code to comply with the state law. Of course, that includes Philomath.

The city attorney’s office that represents Philomath recommended code updates to shelter itself from lawsuits and to comply with new state laws to clarify what constitutes illegal camping, institute a policy for the removal of illegal campsites and delegate authority to the city manager to designate areas on public property that are open for people that are experiencing homelessness to sit, sleep and lay down without facing citations.

Catherine Pratt, Philomath deputy city attorney, went through the details of the new requirements last month with the Finance and Administration Committee and last week with the City Council. She made reference to those two court cases — Martin v. Boise and Blake v. Grants Pass.

“What this isn’t going to do is that this isn’t an ordinance or policy that’s going to end up reducing the number of people that are homeless in the Philomath community,” Pratt said. “It’s not going to reduce the visibility of homelessness. It’s not going to be a systematic solution or anything to that effect. It’s just going to make sure that the city is not in violation of these two laws.”

Philomath hasn’t really seen any visible situations related to homelessness in the parks or on sidewalks to use two examples.

“We don’t currently have folks camping on the sidewalks or in the park so we don’t have that immediate need unlike other communities where this is a current issue that they’re dealing with and every decision they make is going to have an impact on the next day,” City Manager Chris Workman said in an interview this week. “In Philomath, we do have a little bit more time but yes, we do need to have those conversations. The most important thing was to get compliant with state and federal law.”

City councilors after some discussion and receiving answers to various questions approved the code changes and additions unanimously on a roll-call vote.

The meeting did not include any discussion on possible sites that might be designated as places for the homeless to go if they are asked to move on. During the public comments portion of the meeting, Pioneer Connect General Manager James Rennard shared concerns after saying he had learned that 14th and Main was under consideration.

Workman, however, said this week that conversations internally or publicly on the pros and cons of specific city-owned sites, including 14th and Main, haven’t taken place.

“The city will be engaging with the community before we make any decisions about where potential sites could be because we want to hear from neighbors about their concerns and we want to make sure that we try to mitigate those concerns as best we can,” Workman said. “That’s a process still to take place.”

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.