Rural Oregon Town Becomes Face of Homelessness

Case involving homeless camps in Grants Pass is going to the Supreme Court
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 14, 2024 8:18 AM CDT
Rural Oregon Town Becomes Face of Homelessness
Volunteers help dismantle tents to move an 80-year-old man and a woman blind in one eye, who risked being fined for staying too long, at Fruitdale Park in Grants Pass, Ore.   (AP Photo/Jenny Kane)

A pickleball game in the leafy Oregon community was suddenly interrupted one rainy weekend morning by the arrival of an ambulance. After paramedics rushed through the park toward a tent, one of dozens illegally erected by the town's hundreds of homeless people, play resumed as though nothing had happened. The scene was emblematic of the crisis gripping the small, Oregon mountain town of Grants Pass, where a fierce fight over park space has become a battleground for a much larger, national debate on homelessness that has reached the US Supreme Court, per the AP.

The town's case, set to be heard April 22, has broad implications for how not only Grants Pass, but communities nationwide address homelessness, including whether they can fine or jail people for camping in public. It has made the town of 40,000 the unlikely face of the nation's homelessness crisis, and further fueled the debate over how to deal with it. "I certainly wish this wasn't what my town was known for," says Mayor Sara Bristol. "It's not the reason why I became mayor. And yet it has dominated every single thing that I've done for the last 3 1/2 years."

  • Background: Like many Western communities, Grants Pass has struggled for years with a burgeoning homeless population. From 2013 to 2018, the city issued 500 citations for camping or sleeping in public, including in vehicles, with fines that could reach hundreds of dollars. But a 2018 decision by the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals changed the calculus. The court held that while communities are allowed to prohibit tents in public spaces, it violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment to give people criminal citations for sleeping outside when they had no place else to go. Four years later, in a case challenging restrictions in Grants Pass, the court expanded that ruling, holding that civil citations also can be unconstitutional.
  • Two sides: Officials across the political spectrum—from Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in California, which has nearly 30% of the nation's homeless population, to a group of 22 conservative-led states—have filed briefs in the case, saying lower court rulings have hamstrung their ability to deal with encampments. But civil rights groups and attorneys for the homeless residents who challenged the restrictions in 2018 insist people shouldn't be punished for lacking housing. Officials throughout the West have overstated the impact of the court decisions to distract from their own failings to provide solutions to homelessness, they argued.
  • The scene: In Grants Pass, the town's parks, many lining 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 vintage car shows to Easter egg hunts and summer concerts. They're also the sites of encampments blighted by illegal drug use and crime, including a shooting at a park last year that left one person dead. Tents cluster along riverbanks, next to tennis courts and jungle gyms, with tarps shielding belongings from the rain. When the sun comes out, clothes and blankets are strung across tree branches to dry, and used needles litter the ground.
(More homelessness stories.)

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