Grants Pass Homeless Anticipating Resolution By Supreme Court, But Still Facing Barriers

With limited options, the number of homeless people not accommodated within the approximately 14,000 households in Grants Pass has increased as the population grows.

The city’s 2021 Housing Needs Analysis indicates that over 4,000 new housing units- at various income levels, need to be built between 2020 and 2040 to accommodate population growth. Representing a 28% increase, the housing shortage is indicative of the homelessness issue which is further exacerbated by drug use and deficiencies in mental health services.

Listed by Oregon Housing and Community Services as severely rent-burdened, almost a third of tenants in Grants Pass are spending more than half of their income on rent. Nearby Medford and Klamath Falls and other Oregon cities and towns face similar problems, with high costs forcing people into indigence.

City Mayor Sara Bristol believes that the City Council itself has had a hand in the homelessness crisis in that it has not been willing to address the problem. Of the eight councilors, only five have been supportive of strategies to solve the crisis. Moves have been made to push the homeless out through legislation, but this moves the problem rather than solves it.

 

The judge in Martin v. City of Boise in 2018 declared that- under the Eighth Amendment, cities may not punish homeless people for sleeping on public property where when they are unable to find shelter. In Medford, the district court ruled in 2020 that the Grants Pass homelessness ordinances were unconstitutional, finding them to be cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment in Grants Pass v. Johnson.

Originally filed by Debra Blake in October 2018, the plaintiff- represented by the Oregon Law Center, alleged that Grants Pass was attempting to run homeless people out of the town. Blake passed away and her case was transferred to two new plaintiffs-  Gloria Johnson and John Logan, giving rise to the current name of Grants Pass vs Johnson. Involuntarily homeless in Grants Pass, Johnson- despite a lack of access to adequate shelter, is prohibited from sleeping in her van in the city, following citations for camping in a park. As well as violating the Eighth Amendment, Johnson also alleged that the city’s municipal code infringes the Excessive Fines Clause.

In a decision by three judges in the 9th Circuit Court in San Francisco last year, The Grants Pass appeal against the decision was dismissed and the original judgment was upheld. All 29 judges of the 9th Circuit Court were then approached by Grants Pass to hear the case, but this summer, they voted not to. Currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, these judges could now choose to take the case- as early as this spring, and their decision could have important repercussions on how cities should regulate homelessness, and the Martin precedent could also be affected.

 

Attempts to manage homelessness by Grants Pass also led to a court injunction against the city in August 2020. In terms of the injunction, Grants Pass may not enforce its camping ordinances, or any other ordinance that relates to criminal trespassing on city property during certain hours, such as city parks, with the exclusion of Reinhart Volunteer Park. Creating the effect that homeless people could camp in most city parks without threat of prosecution under two ordinances, State law passed in 2021 stipulations include the proviso that a 72-hour notice must be posted before a campsite is cleared.

 

Separately to the Johnson matter, in 2021 Oregon State passed a law covering where homeless people can rest or sleep on public property, with rules that lay down that authorities must be “objectively reasonable” in determining where, when, and how people can do so. As a result of this legislation, no matter what the Supreme Court may decide in the Johnson matter, Grants Pass will still be obliged to follow this state law.

The repercussions from the Johnson case could have consequences for how cities can regulate homelessness but in the interim, it appears that the city has lost its ability to police its parks. Yet the problems experienced by homeless people persist.

 

Historically, western cities have restricted investment in shelter capacity, housing, mental health services, and addiction treatment, and often homeless people are simply forced into certain neighborhoods. Shelters too experience challenges. Tara Hodges- a resident at Fikso Family Center in Grants Pass sees the shelter as a Godsend. Having a history of substance misuse, trauma, and PTSD, Hodges has spent time in jail, but living at the shelter for women and children for just over a year has changed her life for the better. Her alternative would be living in a park.

 

Run by the Grants Pass Gospel Rescue Mission- a Christian nonprofit with a men’s shelter next door, two thrift stores in town, and a women’s transitional home, the Mission works for some but has been criticized for its restrictive 29 rules that residents must stick to to continue their stay. No drugs or alcohol,  dressing and behaving according to birth gender, attendance of religious services, and- for stays longer than 30 days, payment for food of $100 a month for adults and $50 for children are just some of the rules. The goal- according to Executive Director of the Mission  Brian Bouteller, is for people to be independent. “And for them to become independent requires something different than what it might be just to simply get them off the streets,” says Bouteller.

Aside from involuntary homelessness, other social problems are experienced. The Women’s Crisis Support Team in Grants Pass has a safe house where it houses 13 survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and trafficking. Similarly, Hearts with a Mission provides shelter for four 18-21-year-olds and Foundry Village is a community housing project with 17 tiny homes run by Rogue Retreat, a housing NPO. Others from the estimated 1,200 unhoused people in Grants Pass may not meet the eligibility criteria, leaving them with no shelter in the city as temperatures regularly drop below freezing point in the winter.  Grants Pass- as with much of the West Coast, faces a growing homeless population, and many people are reduced to simply staking their tents in public parks.

 

On the other side of the coin, residents like Ginny Stegemiller who lives in the nearby community of Murphy and owns four properties adjacent to Grants Pass’s Riverside Park, is part of a recently formed volunteer group called Park Watch, which monitors city parks and is advocating for the city to create an urban campground. Experiencing trespassing on their properties, the park’s river view is also congested and she is concerned about the drug deals she says she sees. “Residents used to be able to walk through the parks, and now they can’t because it’s not safe for them,” she said.

Enduring a crisis worsened by a lack of housing and support, Grants Pass is not alone in struggling to address its growing homeless population. Many people are looking for direction. From  Grants Pass v. Johnson- the case being considered by the Supreme Court. Garrett Epps, a professor and Constitutional law expert at the University of Oregon’s School of Law, indicates that it’s likely that the Supreme Court will take the case.

The city- and others state and nationwide, seem to have been in legal limbo for the last three years. A Supreme Court ruling will help to guide the rules that need to be made and standards to be followed.

 

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