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Impact Of Ruling In Grants Pass Homelessness Case Remains Unclear

April Ehrlich
JPR News

Last week, a federal court ruled that citing people in Grants Pass for camping or sleeping in public is unconstitutional. The decision invalidated sleeping ordinances in Grants Pass, but clarification is still needed for other municipalities.

A 2017 landmark case in Boise, Idaho, protected people sleeping outside from being arrested if they didn’t have reasonable alternative shelter. In response, many cities started issuing tickets and fines instead of charging people with misdemeanors and possible jail time.

Last week’s ruling found that these citations still violate the Boise decision, citing the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause of the Eighth amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“This case makes clear that the Eighth amendment applies to punishment beyond just misdemeanors," said Ed Johnson, an attorney at the nonprofit Oregon Law Center. "So it extends to being ticketed with a violation and being fined for engaging in that universal, unavoidable behavior.”

Anti-camping ordinances vary from city to city, so the ruling lacks clear direction for other municipalities. Ariel Nelson with the League of Oregon Cities says the wording of the Boise case was vague, so many cities haven’t been enforcing camping ordinances for fear of a lawsuit.

“I think cities were looking for more clarity about the kinds of ordinances that could be allowed," said Nelson. "It puts cities in the position of trying additional ordinances and being faced with litigation which is really costly for many cities, especially as we’re headed toward another recession.”

The city of Grants Pass is currently evaluating whether to appeal the decision. Officials declined to comment on whether last week’s decision will change their camping ordinances.

While there are conflicting ideas of what the case means in the big picture, some say it sets a precedent for other cities to follow suit with their anti-camping ordinances. Jesse Sharpe, an organizer with the Community Alliance of Tenants, sees the ruling as a small but important victory.

“This is a culmination or peak in a really long struggle that’s been happening in this valley.” said Sharpe. “It’s part of a really long history and it’s amazing to see at least one step forward.”