One small Oregon city’s rules on homeless encampments could decide how big cities handle the housing crisis

Grants Pass, Ore.For more than five years, Helen Cruz lived on the streets of Grants Pass, Oregon. 

A small, rural town of roughly 40,000 people, the city has now found itself at the center of a homeless crisis plaguing major cities across the United States. 

“We’re in this situation not because we want to be. We’re in this situation because we don’t have a choice right now,” Cruz, 49, said in an interview.

For years, Grants Pass has been embroiled in a contentious lawsuit with homeless residents like Cruz arguing that anti-camping ordinances enacted by the city — including fines for sleeping in any park or public space — violate their constitutional rights.

Helen Cruz
Helen Cruz in Grant Pass, Ore.Dan Dvorak / NBC News

That legal battle has now gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear arguments in the case on April 22. The decision could impact how cities nationwide address homelessness in their communities. 

Cruz, who couldn’t afford rent, said she often slept inside a tent in a city park. Although she is no longer homeless — working and living at a small, local church — she said she still has more than $6,000 in tickets and fines.

“My credit is shot. I have no credit. None,” Cruz said. “Anything they want to write a ticket for, they do.” 

Cruz and other residents say that because Grants Pass has no low-barrier, full-time homeless shelter, they have no alternative but the street. It’s for that reason, they argue the city has violated the 8th Amendment of the Constitution barring cruel and unusual punishment.

“They are saying, because we don’t have that white picket fence that we’re not allowed to live,” Cruz said. “And we don’t have any place to go.”

The flip side, local officials say, is a city dotted with tents and frustrated residents who feel they can’t utilize their public parks.

“I think there is a lot of crime happening in these parks,” Grants Pass Police Chief Warren Hensman said. “And I think our city — it deserves to have the ability to hold people accountable to bad behavior… I don’t think I or anybody else wants to make it difficult for somebody.”

Pointing to a nearby row of tents, he added: “We want to support, we want to help people, but the reality is, this in and of itself is inhumane.”

Grants Pass, like many cities, is also dealing with a housing shortage. Over the past two decades, as more people moved in, housing costs went up, forcing a growing number of people onto the streets. 

According to the U.S. Census, the population of Grants Pass was nearly 23,000 in 2000. It’s now nearly 40,000. 

“I would be surprised if there are very many apartments that you could find for less than $1,200/month in Grants Pass,” Ed Johnson, an Oregon Law Center attorney representing the city’s homeless residents, said in an interview. “It’s very difficult to find housing.”

The Grants Pass case arrived at the Supreme Court after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the city’s homeless residents. The appeals court ruled 2-1 that the city, which is about 250 miles south of Portland, cannot “enforce its anti-camping ordinances against homeless persons for the mere act of sleeping outside with rudimentary protection from the elements, or for sleeping in their car at night, when there is no other place in the city for them to go.”

The decision only applies in situations in which homeless people “are engaging in conduct necessary to protect themselves from the elements when there is no shelter space available,” the court added.

Grants Pass appealed and the U.S. Supreme Court decided to take it up. 

Among those watching the outcome: California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is among several Democrats who have called on the court to side with the city and against those arguing against any limits on outdoor camping. 

“Encampments are dangerous — period. California is investing billions to build housing and provide the services needed to get people out of tents and into safer situations,” Newsom said in a statement. “However, our best efforts are being blocked because of sweeping injunctions that delay progress and fail to provide any consistent guidance for local authorities to abide by.”

Newsom filed an amicus brief supporting Grants Pass and arguing that rulings in other courts that have banned anti-camping ordinances have “paralyzed” cities and effectively blocked them from moving people off public streets.

Local officials in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Phoenix are also among those asking the Supreme Court to overturn the appeals court. 

In San Francisco, for instance, the city is currently embroiled in its own lawsuit over the clearing of homeless encampments. Mayor London Breed is asking a judge to freeze the lawsuit until the Grants Pass case is decided. 

“It is a unique twist that this ruling is gonna go to the Supreme Court, which is very conservative,” Sachin Agarwal, a co-founder of GrowSF, a group working to elect more moderate Democratic candidates in San Francisco, said in an interview. “We hope that they side with Grants Pass and that we are able to move people to shelter, so we can have clean streets, which is good for families, it’s good for business, it’s good for the city.”

Johnson, however, disagrees. He believes lawmakers like Newsom and Breed are deflecting blame and siding with Grants Pass for political reasons amid pressure from voters who are fed-up with rising homelessness in their neighborhoods. 

Camping site
Camping site in Grant Pass, Ore.KOBI

“Grants Pass wants to make it illegal on every inch of property, 24-hours a day,” Johnson said. “The problem is if that’s allowed, many cities will simply try to run all of the homeless people out of their community, and they have to go somewhere, so they’re going to go somewhere else, and they’re still going to have to live outside because of the affordable housing shortage.”

Johnson said people are being punished for “simply existing” and that if more cities enact strict anti-camping ordinances like Grants Pass, it could make the homeless crisis worse.  

“If we go down this line of spending money on criminalization and banishing people from their hometowns, we’re going to wake up in a year or two years or five years, and we’re going to have twice as many of our neighbors living outside,” he said. 

The city, however, argued the anti-camping ordinances can help get people into shelters. 

“The status quo is cruel. It is cruel and inhumane to allow encampments to proliferate,” Grants Pass’ attorney Theane Evangelis, who will be arguing the case in front of the Supreme Court, said. “When cities are unable to address the situation, they’re unable to cite basic ordinances that can be used as a tool to help get people the services that they need, the help that they need to break the cycle.”

A specific spot of contention in Grants Pass is the lack of shelters. 

The city directs people to the Gospel Rescue Mission, but the religious organization that requires residents to work there has a complicated list of rules that makes it unappealing for many, including those who are already employed. 

In a statement to NBC News, the Mayor of Grants Pass Sara Bristol said the city has had to rely on nonprofits to offer shelters. 

“We simply lack the financial resources to support a full-time shelter,” Bristol said.

Residents like David Wilson, a veteran who is currently homeless in Grants Pass and said he can’t find a stable job or housing and has even been rejected by fast food restaurants where he’s applied. 

Wilson explained that he once received $1,000 in fines in three days for sleeping in his tent. He said he tried to use a housing voucher, but no one would take it. 

“I understand the problems they’re having. I just think they’re going about dealing with it in the wrong way,” he said. “So, fine, you get rid of me, you know, you drive us all out of town. There’s another wave coming.”

Cruz counts herself as one of the lucky ones. After connecting with a local pastor, she now lives at this small church across the street from the park where she once pitched her tent and found work cleaning homes. But, she said she never forgets where she came from. 

Her late friend Deborah Blake was one of the first homeless residents to challenge the city. 

“One of the reasons that I stand up now is because I don’t want to see what she started, I want to see it finished in the right way,” Cruz said. “I believe what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong…and what’s going on in this town right now is not right by any means.”

Wiping tears away, she paused and added: “If they side with the city of Grants Pass, I don’t really want to think about what’s going to happen. It’s an uncertainty that nobody wants to think about.”

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