Can homeless people be fined for sleeping outside? A rural Oregon city asks the US Supreme Court

GRANT PASS, Oregon — A pickleball game in this leafy Oregon community was suddenly interrupted by the arrival of an ambulance one rainy weekend morning. Paramedics rushed through the park to a tent, one of dozens illegally set up by the city’s hundreds of homeless people, and play resumed as if nothing had happened.

Just a few meters away, volunteers helped dismantle tents to move an 80-year-old man and a woman blind in one eye, who were at risk of being fined for staying too long. In the distance, a group of boys climbed a jungle gym.

The scenes were emblematic of the crisis gripping the small mountain town of Grants Pass, Oregon, where a fierce fight over park space has become a battleground for a much larger, national debate over homelessness that has reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

The city’s case, which will be heard on April 22, has broad implications for how not only Grants Pass, but communities across the country, address homelessness, including whether they can fine or jail people if they live in the public camping. It has made the city of 40,000 the unlikely face of the country’s homelessness crisis, and further fueled debate over how to deal with it.

“I certainly wish this wasn’t what my city was known for,” Mayor Sara Bristol told The Associated Press last month. “It’s not the reason why I became mayor. And yet it has dominated everything I have done for the past 3.5 years.”

Officials from across the political spectrum — from Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in California, where nearly 30% of the nation’s homeless population lives, to a group of 22 conservative-led states — have filed a brief in the case, saying statements by lower courts have paralyzed their rule of law. ability to deal with camps.

Like many western communities, Grants Pass has struggled with a growing homeless population for years. Ten years ago, city council members discussed how to “make things uncomfortable enough… in our city that they would want to move forward.” From 2013 to 2018, the city says it issued 500 citations for camping or sleeping in public, including in vehicles, with fines ranging up to hundreds of dollars.

But a 2018 decision by the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals changed the calculus. The court, whose jurisdiction includes nine Western states, ruled that while communities may ban tents in public spaces, it violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment to give people criminal tickets for sleeping outside when they had nowhere to go. could go elsewhere. .

Four years later, in a case challenging the restrictions in Grants Pass, the court expanded that ruling and ruled that civil citations can also be unconstitutional.

Civil rights groups and advocates for the homeless residents who challenged the restrictions in 2018 are insisting that people should not be punished for not having housing. Officials across the West have overestimated the impact of the court decisions to distract from their own shortcomings, they argued.

“For years, political leaders have chosen to tolerate encampments as an alternative to meaningfully addressing the severe housing shortage in the Western Region,” the lawyers wrote. “It is easier to blame the courts than to take responsibility for finding a solution.”

In Grants Pass, the city’s parks, many of which are located along the picturesque Rogue River, are at the heart of the debate. Cherished for their open spaces, picnic tables, playgrounds and sports fields, they host everything from annual boat racing festivals and classic car shows to Easter egg hunts and summer concerts.

They are also encampments plagued by illegal drug use and crime, including a shooting in a park last year that left one person dead. Tents line the riverbanks, next to tennis courts and climbing frames, with tarps protecting gear from the rain. When the sun shines, clothes and blankets are stretched over tree branches to dry. Used needles lie on the floor.

Grants Pass has only one adult overnight shelter, the Gospel Rescue Mission. It has 138 beds, but rules such as attending daily Christian services, not using alcohol, drugs or smoking and no pets mean many will not stay there.

Cassy Leach, a nurse, leads a volunteer group that provides food, medical care and other basic goods to the city’s hundreds of homeless people. They help move their tents to comply with city regulations.

Last month, in a park, she checked on a man who burned his leg after falling on a lighter during a fentanyl overdose and brought him naloxone, the drug for opioid overdose. In another, she handed out cans of beans, peas and mini ravioli from Chef Boyardee from a pickup truck.

“Love, hope, community and a safety net really are as important as a shower and water,” Leach said.

Dre Buetow, 48, from Northern California, has been living in his car for three years after a bone cancer diagnosis and $450,000 in medical bills. The disease and treatment kept him from returning to his old job pruning trees, he said.

Laura Gutowski’s husband died of a pulmonary embolism and suddenly, in her 50s, she found herself without an income. They had no life insurance or savings and within a month she was sleeping outside in the town where she grew up.

“I loved camping,” she said through tears. “And now I can’t take it anymore.”

Volunteers like Leach came to her aid. “They’re angels,” she said.

But some residents want to limit aid because of the waste left behind after moving their camp or distributing food. The city council proposed requiring outreach groups to register with the city. The mayor vetoed the bill, exposing the discord that gripped Grants Pass.

Before the council tried unsuccessfully to override the veto last month, a self-described “park watch” group gathered outside City Hall with signs that read, “Parks are for kids.” Drivers in passing cars honked their support.

The group regularly posts images of waste, tents and homeless people on social media. On Sundays, they set up camp chairs in an effort to reclaim park space.

Brock Spurgeon says he took his grandchildren to parks that were so full it was difficult to find an available picnic table. Now, open drug use and discarded needles have driven families away, he said.

“That was taken away from us when the campers started using the parks,” he said.

Yet Spurgeon said his own brother died while homeless in a nearby town, and his son lives in the parks while struggling with addiction. Once, he said, he was shocked to realize that the homeless man covered in blankets he stepped past to enter a grocery store was his son.

“I miss my son every night, and I hold my breath because he won’t throw up excessively in the park,” Spurgeon said.

Mayor Bristol and advocates have tried to open a shelter with fewer rules, or a special area where homeless people can camp. But charged debates ensued over where that would be and who would pay for it.

While support for a designated campsite appears to be growing, the problem remains: many homeless people in Grants Pass have nowhere else to live. And some advocates fear a return to strict anti-camping enforcement will push people into the woods outside the city, further from help.

Even if the Supreme Court overturns the 9th Circuit’s decisions, Bristol said, “we still have 200 people who need to go somewhere.”

“We must accept that homelessness is a reality in America,” she said.