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Eugene City Council dove headfirst into uncharted legal waters this week. No one is satisfied with the current state of homelessness, but empowering property owners to call the cops when a tent goes up between the sidewalk and the street asks for a lawsuit.

Frustration at campsites is certainly justified. Trash and worse typically accompany them. Under the best circumstances they can be a nuisance that deters customers or disrupts a neighborhood. Often, though, it's far worse as camps become centers for crime and aggressive behavior.

Property owners and businesses need a means to ensure that the homelessness crisis does not remain so immediately disruptive to peace, livability and livelihoods. Council's new law aims to provide that means, and it makes a kind of sense. Property owners are responsible for maintaining the parking strip. It's only fair, then, to let them have some say over what happens on it. Now they can call the police about campers who won't leave when asked, and police can enforce trespass laws.

The legal underpinnings, however, are much more complex. In some places, the property owner actually owns the planter strip, but the city has a public right of way on it. In other places, the property line is at the sidewalk. That's an important distinction insofar as allowing private citizens to make the call about public spaces is risky.

We wonder if this isn't an attempt to get around a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in a case out of Boise that concluded cities may not forbid camping in public spaces if there is nowhere else for campers to go. Under this rule, the city can say it's not preventing campers, the neighboring property owner is. Courts might not appreciate the difference.

There also is a risk that property owners will enforce trespass in a discriminatory way. They could call the cops on homeless people sleeping on the parking strip but look the other way when it's a customer hanging out to enjoy a coffee.

Eugene is not alone in struggling with this situation. Portland, for a time, experimented with a program that went the opposite direction. The city explicitly allowed overnight camping in public spaces. It was an unmitigated disaster.

Eugene needs something more than "move along" as its response to problem camping. If the planter strip becomes off limits, the city must provide an alternative. Ideally that would be shelters and supportive housing that help people transition into self-sufficiency and long-term housing. Getting ahead of that curve will require public investment and coordination between the cities and county. They can start with much-discussed crisis center and other public shelter facilities to support it.

It's an interesting quirk of the English language that there is no universally agreed upon term for the space between the sidewalk and street. It's a "planter strip," a "tree lawn" or a dozen other things depending on where you are. If this policy blows up into an expensive, controversial lawsuit, council might start using a term popular in some communities — "hell strip."

-- The Register-Guard

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