How a small Oregon town sparked a nationwide debate on homelessness

By Thomson Reuters Apr 20, 2024 | 7:07 AM

By Deborah Bloom

GRANTS PASS, Oregon (Reuters) – On a sunny afternoon in a grassy park by the river, Amber Rockwell loaded a black, steel cart with a tent, suitcases, bags, camping stove and a plastic tin of licorice and tightened it all down with ratchet straps as she prepared to move to the next park over.

Every week, she and the hundreds of other people living outdoors in Grants Pass, Oregon, must pack up and change locations to avoid being fined, arrested or stripped of their belongings by police.

“There’s no place for us,” Rockwell says, sitting on the grass, taking a break from packing. “We’re made to feel like we shouldn’t even exist.”

This rural town of 39,000 on the Rogue River in southern Oregon’s wine country is at the center of a fight in the U.S. Supreme Court to determine whether governments can legally ban people from sleeping in public. Oral arguments are Monday, and the court’s eventual ruling could have nationwide implications for how cities are allowed to regulate homeless encampments.

“If we go down this line, this road of criminalizing people and banishing them, we’re going to wake up two or three years down the road, and we’re gonna have twice as many homeless people as we have now,” said Ed Johnson, a legal aide attorney who helped file the 2018 lawsuit against Grants Pass that the Supreme Court is reviewing.

Johnson, of the Oregon Law Center, says giving people a criminal record for homelessness makes it harder to find jobs and housing to escape homelessness.

In briefings to the court, Johnson and his colleagues representing people living on the streets in Grants Pass said Grants Pass city councilors’ comments in 2013 as they drafted a camping ban made it clear they were trying to expel homeless people from town.

Grants Pass is fighting a ruling by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which said town laws prohibiting camping on sidewalks, streets, parks or other public places when shelter is unavailable violate the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition against “cruel and unusual” punishment.”

Johnson and his colleagues say this ruling does not stop Grants Pass from restricting such conduct as littering or public urination.

Federal injunctions issued in 2020 and 2022 banned Grants Pass from enforcing its anti-camping ordinances while the case goes through the courts. In the meantime, police are using a state law requiring a 72-hour notice before the city can remove a campsite from public space.

Grants Pass has no public, low-barrier homeless shelters. An estimated 600 residents were unhoused in 2019, according to a point-in-time count.

In its arguments to the Supreme Court, Grants Pass wrote: “There is nothing cruel or unusual about a civil fine for violating commonplace restrictions on public camping.”

Grants Pass has been joined by Idaho’s attorney general, Montana’s Department of Justice, law enforcement groups in Washington state, California Governor Gavin Newsom and others in asking the conservative-majority Supreme Court to clarify or overturn the 9th Circuit ruling, which they say has confused jurisdictions about what they can do to address unsafe and unsanitary encampments.

Groups such as the National Homelessness Law Center have urged the court to confirm the 9th Circuit, saying cities should focus on building housing to address homelessness.

Aaron Hisel, an attorney for Grants Pass, said the premise of the 9th Circuit ruling is “that unless you’re providing them shelter, you can’t punish them or start the process by writing a ticket for them being in the parks.”

“But we’ve never really seriously suggested that unless and until the government provides you a reasonably convenient place to go to the bathroom, that you then have the right to go to the bathroom on public property,” Hisel said.

Under the state law in force now, those who do not move along in Grants Pass face $295 fines. Sometimes, their belongings are confiscated or thrown away. Rockwell, 42, says she is often not able to relocate quickly enough, and that she currently owes thousands in fines she cannot pay.

“I don’t have no money, I don’t have an income right now,” she said. “It’s like milking a turnip.”

She said police threw away her belongings in the summer of last year, after she had dropped them off at another park to go back for a second run. Among her possessions, she says, was an urn storing the ashes of her stillborn son, whom she lost in 2020.

Grants Pass Chief of Police Warren Hensman said that if officers take property from a park and do not know the owner, it will be stored for 90 days, “so a person has ample time to claim their belongings.”

Hensman said his officers would not have discarded an urn if they had noticed it.

“However, if it was mixed with soiled clothes, hazardous materials, drug paraphernalia etc., it could have been missed,” he said.

Some in Grants Pass say they are frustrated by the spread of homeless encampments. Joanie Jensen, a lifetime resident of Grants Pass, said she no longer feels comfortable enjoying the parks like she once did.

“My grandson is on the baseball team, and before each practice and game, they have to sweep the whole outfield and the field to make sure that there’s no needles out there or feces out there,” Jensen said.

Mark Lyon has been homeless in Grants Pass, off and on, for the past 20 years. He said he has witnessed the community becoming more hostile towards him and others on the streets.

“I can understand where they’re coming from,” Lyon, 65, said. “If I was a homeowner, I wouldn’t want me here, which is sad. But I deserve to be some place.”

(Reporting by Deborah Bloom in Grants Pass; Editing by Donna Bryson and Josie Kao)