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How a small city in Oregon could shape the way major U.S. cities handle homelessness

By 37ci3 Mar13,2024

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

The city, a small, rural town of about 40,000 people, is now at the center of a homelessness crisis that has engulfed major US cities.

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

For years, Grants Pass has been embroiled in a contentious lawsuit with homeless residents like Cruz who claim the city’s anti-camping laws — 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

The legal battle went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear arguments in the case on April 22. The decision could affect how cities nationwide address homelessness in their communities.

Unable to pay rent, Cruz said he often slept in a tent in a city park. Although he’s no longer homeless — he works and lives at a small local church — he still has more than $6,000 in tickets and fines, he said.

“My credit was hit. I have no credit. No,” Cruz said. “Whatever they want to ticket, they do.”

Cruz and other residents say Grants Pass doesn’t have a low-barrier, full-time homeless shelter, so they have no other alternative than the street. That’s why they They claim the city violated the Eighth Amendment to the Constitutionprohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

“They say we don’t have a white picket fence because it’s not allowed to live,” Cruz said. “And we have nowhere to go.”

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

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

“We want to be supportive, we want to help people, but the reality is that this is inhumane,” he said, pointing to a row of tents nearby.

Grants Pass, like many cities, is dealing with a housing shortage. Over the past two decades, as more people have moved in, housing costs have risen and an increasing number of people have been forced onto the streets.

according to US CensusGrants Pass had a population of approximately 23,000 in 2000. Now about 40,000.

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

The Grants Pass case reached 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, about 250 miles south of Portland, “cannot enforce its anti-camping laws against homeless people to sleep outside with rudimentary protection from the elements or sleep in their cars at night, when there’s nowhere else in the city to go.”

The court added that the ruling only applies in situations where homeless people “engage in behaviors necessary to protect themselves from the elements in the absence of shelter.”

Grants Pass appealed and the Supreme Court decided to take it down.

Among those watching the outcome: California Gov. Gavin Newsom is among several Democrats urging the court to side with the city and oppose any restrictions on outdoor camping.

“The camps 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 hampered by sweeping directives that delay progress and give local authorities no coherent guidance to follow.”

Newsom argued that other court rulings upholding Grants Pass and banning anti-camping ordinances have “paralyzed” cities and prevented people from being removed from public streets.

Officials from San Francisco, Los Angeles and Phoenix are among those asking the Supreme Court to overturn the appeals court decision.

San Francisco, for example, is embroiled in its own lawsuit over clearing homeless encampments. The Mayor of London is Sex asks the judge to freeze the lawsuit Until the Grants Pass case is resolved.

“It’s a unique twist that this decision will go to the Supreme Court, which is very conservative,” said Sachin Agarwal, co-founder of GrowSF, a San Francisco-based group that works to elect more moderate Democratic candidates. interview. “Hopefully they’re on the side of Grants Pass and we can move people to shelters so we can have clean streets, it’s good for families, it’s good for business, it’s good for the city.”

Johnson disagrees. He said lawmakers like Newsom and Breed blame and support Grants Pass for political reasons under pressure from voters fed up with rising homelessness in their neighborhoods.

Camp site
Campground in Grants Pass, Ore.KOBI

“Grants Pass wants to make every inch of property illegal 24 hours a day,” Johnson said. “The problem is, if that’s allowed, a lot of cities will just try to drive all the homeless people out of their communities and they’ll have to go somewhere, so they’ll go somewhere else and still be. Living outside due to lack of affordable housing.

Johnson said people are being punished for “simply existing” and that more cities will make tougher decisions against encampments like Grants Pass, which could worsen the homelessness crisis.

“If we go down the line of spending money on criminalization and driving people out of their cities, we’re going to wake up in a year, two years, or five years, and twice as many of our neighbors will be living outside. ,” he said.

However, the city argued that anti-camping laws could help put people in shelters.

“The status quo is cruel. Allowing the camps to proliferate is cruel and inhumane,” said Grants Pass attorney Theane Evangelis, who will argue the case before the Supreme Court. “When cities can’t address the situation, they can’t refer to basic laws that can be used as a tool to get people the services they need, the help they need, to break the cycle.”

A particular point of contention at Grants Pass is the lack of shelters.

The city refers people to the Bible Rescue Mission, but the religious organization has complicated rules that require residents to work there, making it off-putting to many, including those already employed.

In a statement to NBC News, Grants Pass Mayor Sara Bristol said the city should rely on nonprofits to offer shelter.

“We simply don’t have the financial resources to support a full-time shelter,” she said.

Residents like David Wilson, a homeless veteran in Grants Pass, said he couldn’t find steady work or housing and was even turned away by fast food restaurants he applied to.

Wilson said he was once fined $1,000 over three days for sleeping in his tent. She said she tried to use her housing voucher, but no one would take it.

“I understand their problems. “I just think they’re going about it the wrong way,” he said. “Well, you give up on me, you know, you’re going to run us all out of town.” Another wave is coming.”

Cruz considers himself one of the lucky ones. After connecting with a local priest, he now lives in a small church across the street from the park, where he once set up his tent and found work cleaning houses. But he said he never forgot where he came from.

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

“One of the reasons I’m standing up now is because I don’t want to do what he started — I want to see it finished the right way,” Cruz said. “I believe that what is right is right and what is wrong is wrong … and what is happening in this city right now is not right in any way.”

She wiped away tears and added, “I don’t want to think what would happen if they sided with the city of Grants Pass. It’s an uncertainty no one wants to think about.”

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By 37ci3

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