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In Grants Pass, immediate effects of Supreme Court ruling are unclear

Tents in Fruitdale Park in Grants Pass in May 2024.
Jane Vaughan
Tents in Fruitdale Park in Grants Pass in May 2024.

That ruling changes law in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes nine Western states where the majority of the country’s unsheltered people live. But it may have a lesser impact in the city at the center of the case.

The big question the Supreme Court decided was whether Grants Pass has the right to enforce its public camping bans, using tickets and fines, when there’s nowhere else for homeless people to sleep.

Lawyers representing homeless residents in the city argued that amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, which is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. But on Friday, the court’s majority disagreed. In the court’s 6-3 decision, Justice Neil Gorsuch said the city’s enforcement of its public camping laws does not violate the Eighth Amendment.

After almost six years of legal battles, Grants Pass Mayor Sara Bristol said she’s pleased it’s finally over.

A sign at the entrance to Riverside Park, where many unhoused people camp.
Jane Vaughan
A sign at the entrance to Riverside Park, where many unhoused people camp.

"I'm glad that the decision has been made. And that we can take in that decision and digest the information and make a plan about where to go from here," she said.

The city hasn’t been able to enforce its camping ordinances for the past four years because of a court injunction while the case has been ongoing. It’s not clear to Bristol when that will be lifted.

What the long-term homelessness policies will look like in Grants Pass is also unclear.

In the midst of this ongoing case, Oregon passed a law in 2021 stating that rules regulating where homeless people can rest or sleep on public property must be “objectively reasonable” as they dictate where, when and how people can do so, although that term is not clearly defined.

So the city will now have to figure out what restrictions it can have while still following Oregon’s state law.

"It will probably be several weeks, at least, before we are able to move forward with any significant change that people will really notice," Bristol said.

The Grants Pass City Council has a meeting scheduled for July 10 to discuss the ruling.

'It's a punch in the gut'

Advocates for homeless residents in Grants Pass said Friday’s decision won’t help homeless people get what they need, which is housing.

Dr. Bruce Murray volunteers with the Mobile Integrative Navigation Team, or MINT, a nonprofit that provides services to unsheltered people.

"It’s a punch in the gut," he said. "We expected this. But I'm just amazed at my own personal reaction. It's visceral. And it's really painful."

Ruth Dailey, a MINT volunteer who has had two homeless relatives, said people's behavior is criminalized when they're living in the parks. A major argument in the case concerned whether or not homeless people were being punished for the unavoidable act of sleeping.

A homeless man named Chris packs a box of food from MINT's offerings in May 2024.
Jane Vaughan
A homeless man named Chris packs a box of food from MINT's offerings in May 2024.

"These are our neighbors. There's no reason to dehumanize them," she said. "People have similar behaviors if they live in homes, but they have walls around them. And when people are out here and don't have a home, they've got a microscope on them."

Along the Rogue River in Grants Pass, about a dozen tents are clustered in the shade of Tussing Park.

Darren Starnes lives in one of them. He’s been in Grants Pass for 35 years, but just became homeless a year and a half ago. He said it’s like “living in a zoo” because you’re always on display.

"I hate it. I hate it. If we could have some quiet little corner somewhere where we weren't bothered, it wouldn't be so bad," he said.

He disagrees with the Supreme Court’s decision.

"They don't really care about the people of our country anymore. It's not about the ‘we the people.’ It's about them, the corporations and the ones with the money. And that's all they care about," he said.

'I think they made the right decision'

Meanwhile, others in Grants Pass support the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Ginny Stegemiller lives in the nearby community of Murphy and owns three properties near Grants Pass’ Riverside Park. She helped form a volunteer group called Park Watch, which monitors the city’s public parks for illegal activity.

She said she’s concerned about crime and drug use in the parks and agrees with the court's ruling.

"Of course, I think they made the right decision," she said.

Stegemiller said she has been homeless herself and wants the city to build an urban campground or other form of shelter to address the homeless crisis.

While there are some shelters in the city, they have limited beds, as well as rules to stay there that some people find burdensome.

"I think it's important going forward for the folks living in the park to be able to find a place to be, find a place to live. I've never thought that people living in the parks was a good thing," she said.

Stegemiller said Park Watch's work will continue, including some rallies in the city.

Mayor says the issue is not black or white

Mayor Sara Bristol said she doesn’t expect the police to change their enforcement tactics until the city has had a chance to discuss the ruling with its attorney and give the department some direction.

The Grants Pass Police declined to comment, saying they wanted more time to understand the ruling.

Meanwhile, Bristol and others are concerned about potential violence in the parks as a result of the court's decision. She urged city residents to be patient.

"I am a little concerned just in the coming days here of people not really understanding that the rules are not going to change immediately. And I guess I don't want citizens increasing acts of violence or threats or yelling at homeless people," she said.

The goal moving forward, Bristol said, is to address the needs of all the city's residents.

"I've never seen the issue as being black or white. We do need to have places for homeless people to sleep. And we also need to have parks that are clean and safe for recreation. And I think we can have both," she said.

Copyright 2024 Jefferson Public Radio

Jane Vaughan