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City of Grants Pass Cannot ‘Punish’ People For Homelessness, Judge Rules

ArtTower via Pixabay

People experiencing homelessness in Grants Pass can’t legally be punished through city ordinances if they have no other place to stay, according to a ruling in U.S. District Court in Medford, announced on Wednesday.

The case involved several homeless people who, along with the non-profit Oregon Law Center, sued the City of Grants Pass alleging that “a web of ordinances, customs and practices” systematically criminalized homelessness in the Southern Oregon city.

Those ordinances include an anti-camping law that restricts people from camping on any “publicly-owned property” in the city. Another prohibits people from sleeping in cars in city parks for two consecutive hours between midnight and 6 a.m.

But with zero emergency shelter options and over 600 identified people experiencing homelessness, the court ruled the Grants Pass ordinances that prohibit people from sleeping in any public space in the city when they have no other option are a violation of the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause of the Eighth Amendment.

“Enforcement of such ‘quality of life laws’ do nothing to cure the homeless crisis in this country. Arresting the homeless is almost never an adequate solution because, apart from the constitutional impediments, it is expensive, not rehabilitating, often a waste of limited public resources, and does nothing to serve those homeless individuals who suffer from mental illness and substance abuse addiction,” the judge wrote.

The ruling cites current guidance about the COVID-19 pandemic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that recommends encampments should not be cleared unless housing units are available.

“Uprooting homeless individuals, without providing them with basic sanitation and waste disposal needs, does nothing more than shift a public health crisis from one location to another, potentially endangering the health of the public in both locations.”

The ruling noted that this decision does not mean that Grants Pass must allow homeless camps “at all times in public parks,” nor does it have to provide a sufficient number of emergency beds. The city should “retain a large toolbox for regulating public space without violating the Eighth Amendment.”

The court cited other support programs to help individuals experiencing homelessness and struggling with mental health, in Southern Oregon and around the U.S.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.