PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Ten people who either have mobility disabilities or care for people with disabilities are suing the city of Portland for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. They say the city’s failure to remove debris and homeless camps from sidewalks prevents them from having full access to safe walkways.
The class action lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday in federal court, asks the city to clear and maintain its sidewalks from debris and tent camps so that they’re accessible and safe for people who have mobility disabilities.
“Clear and readily accessible sidewalks are necessary to permit people with mobility disabilities to independently, fully, and meaningfully participate in all aspects of society,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit says that for over three years, the city has made complying with the ADA and Section 504 a lower priority than other activities and projects.
In Multnomah County’s 2022 Point In Time Count, 5,228 people were considered homeless, with 3,057 of them unsheltered, 1,485 in shelter and 685 in transitional housing. That’s an increase of more than 30% from the last Point In Time Count, which recorded 4,015 homeless people in 2019.
The lawsuit says most tent camps on sidewalks are located in the Old Town, Chinatown and Pearl District neighborhoods, but would like to see the city maintain all of its sidewalks. It says the number of people living with mobility disabilities is nearly 14% higher in Old Town compared to Portland at large, due to the neighborhood’s abundance of sidewalks and proximity to amenities.
The defendants named in the lawsuit come from a variety of neighborhoods beyond Old Town, including the Irvington Neighborhood, Laurelhurst Neighborhood, Pearl District, Woodlawn Neighborhood, Lloyd District and River District.
They say tent camps have impeded their routes to places like the post office, train station, Greyhound station, MAX and bus stops and college courses.
“What I haven’t heard from government is ‘We’re sorry. We’re sorry that we haven’t done a better job of taking care of you.’ Everyone points fingers and explains why they can’t do things,” said plaintiff Keith Martin, who’s 71 and lives in the Cultural District downtown.
The lawsuit lists several incidents where plaintiffs say they had to ride their wheelchairs through the street to avoid homeless camps. Entering the street is particularly dangerous for one plaintiff, who is blind and uses a cane to navigate the city.
The plaintiffs say they’ve been harassed by homeless people on numerous occasions and sometimes they’ve been assaulted.
They’re afraid to go out at night. Some of them refuse to leave their homes when it’s dark and others have started carrying knives or pepper spray to protect themselves.
“I was born and raised in Portland, and the Portland I see now is not the Portland I want to see. When I leave my house I wonder is today the day I get attacked,” said Barbara Jacobson, a 62-year-old woman who lives in Old Town.
Philip Rhodes, an 81-year-old Navy veteran who uses an electric scooter to help him get around, said his efforts to use city sidewalks have resulted in unprovoked altercations with homeless people.
“One such person tried to push him into traffic,” the lawsuit states, “and, on two separate instances, unsheltered persons have stood in the sidewalk and prevented Mr. Rhodes from passing, requiring him to turn around and take another route.”
Rhodes says he’s also been verbally assaulted.
Lorien Ilena Welchoff, a 21-year-old plaintiff who also uses an electric scooter, attends the Pacific Northwest College of Art. She’s had difficulties commuting to school and said she’s been harassed by homeless people as she tries to get around their camps.
“Welchoff has frequently had to wash herself and her wheelchair off after returning home due to operating her wheelchair through human feces, which is not visible after dark,” the lawsuit states.
Jacobson says she puts her service dog in her wheelchair while maneuvering the Old Town neighborhood because broken glass, vomit, syringes and other biohazards make the ground unsafe for her dog to walk on.
The plaintiffs are asking the city to cover the cost of their attorneys’ fees, but otherwise are not demanding a specific amount of monetary relief.
At a press event regarding the lawsuit Wednesday, a plaintiff told KOIN 6 News they just want to see the city comply with the ADA and Rehabilitation Act so that they can navigate sidewalks without interference.
The city of Portland’s attorneys declined to comment on the case.