As Grants Pass awaits Supreme Court decision, city’s struggles with homelessness continue

By Jane Vaughan (JPR)
Dec. 26, 2023 8:36 p.m.

The repercussions from this case could have consequences for how cities can regulate homelessness.

Walking into the Fikso Family Center in Grants Pass, Oregon, the air is sweet-smelling and warm. A room filled with couches is decorated with a Christmas tree, twinkling lights and stockings. There’s a kids’ playroom, a dining room and a chapel.

“For me, this has been a godsend,” shelter resident Tara Hodges said.

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Hodges has a history of substance misuse, trauma and PTSD and has spent time in jail. She’s lived at the shelter, which is for women and children, for just over a year and said it’s completely changed her life.

“I have hope where I didn’t have any before. I’ve managed to get some glasses so I can see. I’m getting pretty teeth,” she said. “I’d be sleeping in the park with the rest of the homeless folks if it wasn’t for these people.”

The shelter is run by the Grants Pass Gospel Rescue Mission, a Christian nonprofit that also runs a men’s shelter next door, two thrift stores in town and a women’s transitional home.

Wagner Hall, a men's shelter in Grants Pass run by the Gospel Rescue Mission.

Wagner Hall, a men's shelter in Grants Pass run by the Gospel Rescue Mission.

Jane Vaughan / JPR

Although the Mission works well for some people, it has been criticized for its list of 29 rules that residents must abide by while staying there. For instance, residents cannot use drugs or alcohol. They “must dress and behave according to their birth gender,” attend religious services and, if they stay for more than 30 days, pay $100 a month per adult and $50 per child for food, among other stipulations.

“Getting them off the streets would be one goal. Getting them into independence is our goal,” said Brian Bouteller, the Mission’s executive director, as he defended the rules. “And for them to become independent requires something different than what it might be just to simply get them off the streets.”

The problem for unhoused people in Grants Pass is not so much that these rules exist. Religious missions often provide help to the needy. It’s that there aren’t other low-barrier shelter options to house the growing number of homeless people on the streets of the rural Southern Oregon city.

How to respond to this shortage of shelter space in Grants Pass while people are camping in parks is at the center of a lawsuit that the U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering taking on.

The Rogue River as seen from Grants Pass's Riverside Park, where people have been camping.

The Rogue River as seen from Grants Pass's Riverside Park, where people have been camping.

Jane Vaughan / JPR

The original legal complaint was filed in October 2018. Plaintiff Debra Blake, represented by the Oregon Law Center, claimed that “Grants Pass is trying to run homeless people out of town.” Blake has since passed away and two different plaintiffs, Gloria Johnson and John Logan, are now named in Grants Pass v. Johnson, the case being considered by the Supreme Court. Johnson is involuntarily homeless in Grants Pass; without adequate shelter options, she says she has faced citation for camping in a park and is prohibited from sleeping in her van in the city. She claims the city’s municipal code violated the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause and Excessive Fines Clause.

The repercussions from this case could have consequences for how cities can regulate homelessness.

Garrett Epps, a professor and Constitutional law expert at the University of Oregon’s School of Law, said the number of amicus briefs, or additional legal arguments, that have been filed in the Grants Pass case, by cities including Phoenix, Arizona and Los Angeles, demonstrates how many groups across the Western U.S. are interested in it.

“If you look at what you know of a city like San Francisco, what we know of a city like Portland, there just are so many homeless people, the city is not capable of even building enough shelters,” he said. “And so the question is, can we just basically make it impossible for these people to stay? Does the government simply say, ‘We have no obligation’?”

According to Epps, it’s likely that the Supreme Court will take the case.

“One of the factors that they’re supposed to consider is the national importance of an issue. And that has been laid out for them pretty clearly,” he said. “If I had to bet money, I would say that this case will probably be heard.”

How to respond to this shortage of shelter space in Grants Pass while people are camping in parks is at the center of a lawsuit that the U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering taking on.

In Grants Pass, the Women’s Crisis Support Team provides a safe house for 13 survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and trafficking, and Hearts with a Mission provides shelter for four 18-21-year-olds who follow program requirements like curfew. There’s also Foundry Village in Grants Pass, a community housing project of 17 tiny homes run by the housing nonprofit Rogue Retreat.

But if the estimated 1,200 unhoused people in Grants Pass don’t meet the eligibility requirements, there’s essentially no shelter in the city, other than the Mission, for them to go to as temperatures regularly dip to freezing in the winter months. The city does not even have an emergency warming shelter.

With Grants Pass, like much of the West Coast, facing a growing homeless population, plenty of people are staking their tents in public parks.

‘Homeless people are punished for sleeping’

The Johnson case was preceded by Martin v. City of Boise from 2018, which found that under the Eighth Amendment, cities cannot punish homeless people for sleeping on public property when they cannot get shelter.

In July 2020, the district court in Medford, Oregon, ruled that Grants Pass’s ordinances regulating homelessness were unconstitutional. The court considered them cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

“[I]nvoluntarily homeless people are punished for engaging in the unavoidable acts of sleeping or resting in a public place when they have nowhere else to go,” the opinion reads.

Grants Pass appealed that decision to the 9th Circuit Court, based in San Francisco, which upheld it last year in a three-judge decision. Grants Pass then requested that all 29 judges on the 9th Circuit Court hear the case, but they voted not to this summer. The U.S. Supreme Court could now choose to take the case, as soon as this spring, and the decision could have crucial ramifications for how cities can regulate homelessness, especially if it affects the Martin precedent.

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. This means that no matter what the Supreme Court decides, Grants Pass will still have to follow this state law.

A crisis worsened by a lack of housing and support

Grants Pass is not alone in struggling to address its growing homeless population.

“[F]or years, western cities forewent investments in shelter capacity, housing, mental health services, and addiction treatment” in favor of pushing the unhoused to certain neighborhoods and prosecuting them, according to a court document filed by plaintiffs in the case in December 2023.

But although Grants Pass might want to force its unhoused residents into neighboring jurisdictions, the document reads, “What happens when those jurisdictions push them back by imposing an even more ‘uncomfortable’ set of penalties, setting off an escalating banishment race among municipalities across the West Coast?”

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In Grants Pass, there are various causes of this crisis.

“It’s basically too many people, not enough housing,” said Doug Walker, a member of the city’s Housing Advisory Committee and former builder. “There’s been tremendous in-migration to the West Coast, to Grants Pass, over the last 20-40 years, and we’ve been underbuilding at incredible rates.”

Grants Pass Housing Committee member Doug Walker with his trailer of tools.

Grants Pass Housing Committee member Doug Walker with his trailer of tools.

Jane Vaughan / JPR

He said housing construction, particularly workforce housing, has not kept pace with the population growth. Without enough housing, many people are priced out of the market.

Grants Pass has been identified by Oregon Housing and Community Services as severely rent burdened, with nearly a third of tenants spending more than half of their income on rent. Other nearby cities considered to be rent burdened include Medford and Klamath Falls.

According to the city’s 2021 Housing Needs Analysis, Grants Pass will need to grow by over 4,000 units, at a variety of income levels, between 2020 and 2040 to accommodate population growth. That’s an increase of nearly 28% over the city’s current number of approximately 14,000 households, according to its 2023 Housing Production Strategy.

On top of this drastic housing shortage, the problem of homelessness has been compounded by the opioid crisis and ensuing drug use, as well as a need for more mental health services.

Both Walker and Mayor Sara Bristol say the City Council itself has had a hand in the homelessness crisis in its unwillingness to address it.

“We’ve had some tentative support” from the council, Bristol said. But “we’ve never really had more than maybe five out of the eight [councilors] who were supportive of doing anything on this issue.”

Instead, Walker said the city has tried to push homeless people out with legislation.

“When you hear what people said from City Council from seven, eight, 10, 15 years ago, that’s pretty much what they were saying was, ‘Let’s do it and make it as miserable as possible and run them out of town,’” he said.

In 2013, the city hosted a community roundtable “to identify solutions to the current vagrancy problems,” according to the meeting minutes.

In the meeting, a “question was raised about [literally] driving repeat offenders out of town and leaving them there.” Then-Councilor Lily Morgan, who is now the city manager of Gold Hill, “stated the point is to make it uncomfortable enough for them in our city so they will want to move on down the road.”

Division over how to address homelessness also led Bristol to face a recall election in September, in which she prevailed. The recall was inspired in part because campaigners disagreed with her actions, including her past vote to create an urban campground in the city.

“They kind of took advantage of community concern about the situation here in our parks with homeless people in Grants Pass,” Bristol said.

In legal limbo

As part of the ongoing legal battle, the city is also under a court injunction from August 2020. It says Grants Pass cannot enforce its camping ordinances, or an ordinance relating to criminal trespassing on city property like parks, during certain hours in any city park except Reinhart Volunteer Park. That means homeless people can camp in nearly all city parks without those two ordinances being enforced. (A state law from 2021 stipulates that a 72-hour notice must be posted before clearing a campsite).

Bristol said the injunction means the city has lost the ability to police its parks.

Grants Pass mayor Sara Bristol in her office.

Grants Pass mayor Sara Bristol in her office.

Jane Vaughan / JPR

It also means fewer people are using the Mission, Bouteller said, since they can camp outside. As of early December, he said the Mission’s 78-bed men’s facility was housing only 41 men, compared to the usual 50-60.

So in the interim, there is a lack of low-barrier shelter options for the people camping in the parks and a lack of administrative options for the city to regulate them.

“Unfortunately, the leadership has been told by legal to leave it in limbo, don’t do anything, because we don’t want to set precedent. So then we have this three years of nothing, of no rules,” Walker said. “That was a bad idea. We gotta make some rules, you gotta have some kind of guidance, some kind of standards.”

Ginny Stegemiller lives in the nearby community of Murphy and owns four properties adjacent to Grants Pass’s Riverside Park. She said over the past few years, the unhoused population has become a problem.

As a result, she’s part of a recently formed volunteer group called Park Watch, which visits city parks, monitors activity, observes code violations and informs police. The group is also advocating for the city to create an urban campground.

“We actually experience trespassers on our property. We have security cameras, so we see trespassers and people trying to break into cars and storage units, daily or weekly,” she said.

She’s also concerned about the park’s river view being congested by tents and about the drug deals she says she sees.

“I worry about some of our residents. I worry about the crime. Our residents used to be able to walk through the parks, and now they can’t because it’s not safe for them,” she said.

Need for shelter remains as city awaits court’s decision

Now, Grants Pass is waiting for an answer from the U.S. Supreme Court, although it’s unclear what legal impacts that might have.

If the court chooses not to take the case, it would be sent back to the district court in Medford. If the court does take the case, there are many potential outcomes, depending on how narrowly it rules. But the Supreme Court interprets laws on a national scale, and either way, Grants Pass will still have to follow Oregon’s state law that was passed in 2021 about “objectively reasonable” regulations.

In the meantime, it’s been over five years since the original Blake v. City of Grants Pass lawsuit was filed, and everyone still seems to be looking for direction.

Back at the Grants Pass Gospel Rescue Mission, residents sit down to share dinner at 5 p.m. Outside, it’s dark and windy, and an unknown number of people are camping in tents, parks or their cars, without permanent shelter.

“The Supreme Court gets to decide whether they’re going to hear it or not,” Grants Pass Mayor Sara Bristol said. “Personally, I guess I’m not sure what the desired result is even for that case. To me, I guess I see that either way, whether we win, lose, or they don’t even hear it or whatever, I think we’re going to need shelter in this town.”

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