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US Supreme Court agrees to hear Oregon case over homelessness policies

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FILE – Tents line the entirety of some city blocks in Portland’s Old Town on March 23, 2022. Julie Sabatier photo

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Friday to hear a case out of Southern Oregon that could make sweeping policy changes to the way cities address homelessness and enforce rules around public camping.

In 2022, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals blocked Grants Pass from enforcing public camping ordinances through fines, saying it violated the cruel and unusual punishment provision of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment. That ruling built off a 2019 decision out of Boise, Idaho, where the same court found a person cannot be criminally punished for sleeping in public if there’s nowhere else for them to go.

The rulings apply to much of the western United States, where the numbers of people experiencing homelessness have surged in recent decades.

“Time is of the essence for this exceptionally important question,” attorneys for the city of Grants Pass wrote in their petition to the Supreme Court. “These decisions have erected a judicial roadblock preventing a comprehensive response to the growth of public encampments in the West. The consequences of inaction are dire for those living both in and near encampments: crime, fires, the reemergence of medieval diseases, environmental harm, and record levels of drug overdoses and deaths on public streets.”

Theane Evangelis, an attorney representing Grants Pass, called the Ninth Circuit’s rulings in Boise and Grants Pass “legally wrong,” and said they’ve “contributed to the growing problem of encampments in cities across the West.” Evangelis said the decisions “tied the hands of local governments.”

“The tragedy is that these decisions are actually harming the very people they purport to protect,” Evangelis added in a statement.

People who support the appeals court decisions say the city of Grants Pass gives houseless people little choice but to sleep outside.

“Because there are no homeless shelters in Grants Pass and the two privately operated housing programs in town serve only a small fraction of the City’s homeless population, most of the City’s involuntarily homeless residents have nowhere to sleep but outside,” attorneys with the Oregon Law Center and Oregon Justice Resource Center argued in their filing to the U.S. Supreme Court. “Given the universal biological necessity of sleeping and of using a blanket to survive in cold weather, the City’s enforcement of its ordinances meant that its homeless residents could not remain within city limits without facing punishment. The City had, in other words, ‘criminalized their existence.’”

Ed Johnson, an attorney representing homeless residents, said the pair of rulings by the Ninth Circuit are narrow and in line with previous rulings by the Supreme Court.

Johnson said in a statement that some politicians were “cynically and falsely blaming the judiciary for the homelessness crisis to distract the public and deflect blame for years of failed policies.”

He said the case is not about whether a city can regulate encampments, adding that it has always been permissible, even under the appeals rulings.

“The issue before the Court is whether cities can punish homeless residents simply for existing without access to shelter,” Johnson said.

The court could hear arguments as early as this spring.
Copyright 2024 Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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