Oregon city asks US Supreme Court: Can homeless people be fined for sleeping outside?

GRANTS PASS, Oregon — A pickleball game in this leafy Oregon community was suddenly interrupted one rainy weekend morning by the arrival of an ambulance. Paramedics rushed through the park toward a tent, one of dozens illegally erected by the town’s hundreds of homeless people, then play resumed as though nothing had happened.

Mere feet away, volunteers helped dismantle tents to move an 80-year-old man and a woman blind in one eye, who risked being fined for staying too long. In the distance, a group of boys climbed on a jungle gym.

The scenes were 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 U.S. Supreme Court.

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,” Mayor Sara Bristol told The Associated Press last month. “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.”

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.

Like many Western communities, Grants Pass has struggled for years with a burgeoning homeless population. A decade ago, City Council members discussed how to make it “uncomfortable enough … in our city so they will want to move on down the road.” From 2013 to 2018, the city said it 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 U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals changed the calculus. The court, whose jurisdiction includes nine Western states, 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.

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, they argued.

“For years, political leaders have chosen to tolerate encampments as an alternative to meaningfully addressing the western region’s severe housing shortage,” the attorneys wrote. “It is easier to blame the courts than to take responsibility for finding a solution.”

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. Used needles litter the ground.

Grants Pass has just one overnight shelter for adults, the Gospel Rescue Mission. It has 138 beds, but rules including attendance at daily Christian services, no alcohol, drugs or smoking and no pets mean many won’t stay there.

Cassy Leach, a nurse, leads a volunteer group providing food, medical care and other basic goods to the town’s hundreds of homeless people. They help relocate their tents to comply with city rules.

At one park last month, she checked on a man who burned his leg after falling on a torch lighter during a fentanyl overdose and brought him naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal medication. In another, she distributed cans of beans, peas and Chef Boyardee mini ravioli from a pickup truck.

“Love, hope, community and a safety net is really 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 illness and treatment kept him from returning to his old tree-trimming job, he said.

Laura Gutowski’s husband died from a pulmonary embolism and she suddenly found herself, in her 50s, with no income. They didn’t have life insurance or savings and, within a month, she was sleeping outside in the city she grew up in.

“I used to love camping,” she said through tears. “And now I can’t stand it anymore.”

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

But some residents want to limit aid because of the trash left behind after encampment moves or food handouts. The City Council proposed requiring outreach groups to register with the city. The mayor vetoed it, laying bare the discord gripping Grants Pass.

Before the council attempted, unsuccessfully, to override the veto last month, a self-proclaimed “park watch” group rallied outside City Hall with signs reading, “Parks are for kids.” Drivers in passing cars honked their support.

The group regularly posts images of trash, tents and homeless people on social media. On Sundays, they set up camp chairs in what they say is a bid to reclaim park space.

Brock Spurgeon says he used to take his grandkids to parks that were so full it was hard to find an available picnic table. Now, open drug use and discarded needles have scared families away, he said.

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

Still, Spurgeon said his own brother died while homeless in a nearby city, and his son is living in the parks as he struggles with addiction. Once, he said, he realized with shock that the homeless person covered with blankets that he stepped past to enter a grocery store was his son.

“I miss my son every night, and I hold my breath that he won’t OD in the park,” Spurgeon said.

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

While support for a designated campground appears to be growing, the problem remains: Many homeless people in Grants Pass have nowhere else to live. And some advocates fear a return of strict anti-camping enforcement will push people to the forest outside town, farther from help.

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

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