HomeTop StoriesHow a small town in Oregon sparked a national debate about homelessness

How a small town in Oregon sparked a national debate about homelessness

By Deborah Bloom

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (Reuters) – On a sunny afternoon in a grassy riverside park, Amber Rockwell loaded a black steel cart with a tent, suitcases, bags, camping stove and a plastic can of licorice and strapped everything down as she was preparing to go to the next park.

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

“There’s no room for us,” Rockwell says, sitting on the grass and taking a break from packing. “We get the feeling that 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 battle before the U.S. Supreme Court to determine whether governments can legally ban people from sleeping in public. Oral arguments are scheduled for Monday, and the court’s final ruling could have nationwide implications for how cities are allowed to regulate homeless encampments.

“If we follow this line, this path of criminalizing people and banishing them, in two or three years we will wake up and we will have twice as many homeless people as we have now,” he said. Ed Johnson, a paralegal who helped file the 2018 lawsuit against Grants Pass, which the Supreme Court is currently reviewing.

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

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In court briefings, Johnson and his colleagues representing people living on the streets in Grants Pass said comments by Grants Pass city council members in 2013 when they passed a camping ban made it clear they were trying to drive homeless people out of the city. expel.

Grants Pass is fighting a ruling by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that says city laws banning camping on sidewalks, streets, parks or other public places when shelter is not available violate the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution on ‘cruel and unusual ‘punishment’.

Johnson and his colleagues say this ruling won’t stop Grants Pass from restricting behavior like littering or public urination.

Federal court orders issued in 2020 and 2022 barred Grants Pass from enforcing its anti-camping ordinances while the case was pending in court. Meanwhile, police are taking advantage of a state law that requires 72 hours’ notice before the city can remove a campsite from public space.

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

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

Grants Pass was 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 overturn the 9th Circuit’s ruling to clarify or undo what they believe has caused confusion. jurisdictions on what they can do to tackle unsafe and unsanitary camps.

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Groups such as the National Homelessness Law Center have urged the court to affirm 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 give them shelter, you can’t punish them or start the process by issuing a ticket for their stay in the parks.”

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

Under current state law, those who do not move within Grants Pass face a $295 fine. Sometimes their belongings are confiscated or thrown away. Rockwell, 42, says she often can’t move fast enough and currently owes thousands in fines that she can’t pay.

“I have no money, I have no 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 dropped them off at another park before returning for a second run. Among her belongings, she says, was an urn that held the ashes of her stillborn son, whom she lost in 2020.

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

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

“However, if it was mixed with dirty clothing, 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 lifelong resident of Grants Pass, said she no longer feels comfortable enjoying the parks as she once did.

“My grandson is on the baseball team and before every practice and game they have to sweep the entire field and field to make sure there are no needles or feces,” Jensen said.

Mark Lyon has been homeless in Grants Pass for the past twenty years. He said he witnessed the community become more hostile toward him and others on the streets.

“I 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 somewhere.”

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

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