Rural Oregon City Asks Court If Homeless Can Be Fined For Sleeping Outdoors

The community of Grants Pass in the mountains of Oregon is embroiled in a national dispute over homelessness that has reached the US Supreme Court. The town’s case, which is scheduled for hearing on April 22, will significantly impact how municipalities around the country deal with homelessness, particularly on whether or not they may penalize or imprison those who camp in public.

The 40,000-person town has long suffered with an increasing number of homeless people, but in 2018, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rendered a ruling that altered the situation. The court ruled that while local governments may prohibit tents in public areas, it is unconstitutional to charge someone with a crime for sleeping outdoors when they have nowhere else to go, which violates the Eighth Amendment’s limitation on cruel and unusual punishment.

Four years later, the court extended that decision, concluding that civil citations may also be illegal in a case contesting Grants Pass limitations.

The parks of Grants Pass, many of which are along the scenic Rogue River, are the focal point of the discussion. They include boat races, classic car displays, concerts in the summer, and egg hunts for Easter eggs. But they’re also the locations of encampments plagued by violence, such as the shooting at a park last year and illicit drug usage.

Residents in Grants Pass are complaining about the way the city is handling the homeless population’s encampments, pointing to food handouts and litter. The mayor rejected a proposal by the City Council to mandate that outreach organizations register with the city. A self-described “park watch” group has begun assembling to recover park space in front of City Hall. Advocates and Mayor Bristol have worked to build a less restrictive shelter or a special place where the homeless may camp, but disagreements have arisen over where and how to pay for it.

Although there is increasing support for a designated campsite, many Grants Pass homeless persons have nowhere else to reside.