ashland.news
July 14, 2024

Oregon Democrats, homeless advocates disappointed in Supreme Court homelessness ruling

Ashland "night lawn" off of East Main Street behind the City Council chamber, at left, on April 2, 2024. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
June 28, 2024

The top court sided with Grants Pass in a case brought by homeless people against that southern city’s restrictions on camping in public places

By Lynne Terry, Oregon Capital Chronicle

Democratic lawmakers, homeless advocates and legal experts in Oregon expressed disappointment Friday with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Grants Pass homeless case, while conservatives welcomed the decision.

In a 6-3 decision split along partisan lines, the court sided with the Southern Oregon city in its prohibitions against homeless people using blankets, pillows or cardboard to protect themselves in severe weather while sleeping in public places. The court said that the city’s ordinances against homeless camping did not violate the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

“The Constitution’s Eighth Amendment serves many important functions, but it does not authorize federal judges to wrest those rights and responsibilities from the American people and in their place dictate this nation’s homelessness policy,” the decision states.

Sybil Hebb, a homeless expert with the Oregon Law Center, which provides free legal advice and helped initiate the case against Grants Pass, told the Capital Chronicle the center’s staff  was disappointed with the ruling.

“The decision is certainly not what we had hoped for,” Hebb said in an email. “We wholeheartedly disagree with the decision and find it morally wrong as well as counter-productive.”

The court’s ruling marks a reversal of a 2022 decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the case, Gloria Johnson, et. al. v. Grants Pass. Three homeless people filed the suit in 2018, accusing the city of violating the Eighth Amendment for arresting and ticketing people for sleeping outside. The Ninth Circuit blocked the law, saying it criminalized the status of homelessness and therefore violated the Eighth Amendment. 

The Oregon House Republican leader, Rep. Jeff Helfrich of Hood River, welcomed the Supreme Court’s reversal of the Ninth Circuit.

“Our parks were never meant to be campgrounds, and now our cities can finally begin restoring our communities’ public spaces,” Helfrich said in a statement. “The Supreme Court’s ruling is a victory for common sense and highlights what conservative leadership looks like.”

But according to Hebb, the Supreme Court ruling does not give cities an unlimited right to enact homeless camping bans or rule out any further legal recourse homeless advocates might have against restrictions.

“It’s important to note that the court left several specific legal avenues open – they specifically reference the availability of a necessity defense for people who do not have access to shelter or public places to live,” Hebb said. “Nothing in the court’s ruling prohibits state or local governments from enacting laws that address this issue, or provide protections for people experiencing homelessness.”

In 2021, the Oregon Legislature passed House Bill 3115 against unreasonable restrictions against homeless camping. The bill, which took effect in July 2023, states: “Any city or county law that regulates the acts of sitting, lying, sleeping or keeping warm and dry outdoors on public property that is open to the public must be objectively reasonable as to time, place and manner with regards to persons experiencing homelessness.”

Senate Republican Leader Daniel Bonham of The Dalles said that law hamper’s the ability of local community to address homelessness.

“The Legislature should immediately provide clarity to our local governments as they work to reduce homelessness in their communities by taking action on HB 3115. This time, cities and counties that are most affected should be at the table, leading the discussions on what is best for their local jurisdictions. We stand ready to pass legislation that balances the interests of all residents – whether they are in a home or seeking shelter, utilizing both compassion and pragmatism to ensure our public spaces are safe, clean, and accessible for everyone,” Bonham said in a statement.

Gov. Tina Kotek has made fighting homelessness a top priority, and in this year’s legislative session, lawmakers approved $376 million to build more housing, help people with rent and get them in shelters and temporary housing. The Democratic chairs of the Legislature’s housing committees, Sen. Kayse Jama of Portland and Rep. Pam Marsh of Ashland, said the Supreme Court ruling will not affect their goal of ending homelessness.

“Our goal remains making sure every Oregonian has access to safe, affordable housing so no one has to resort to sleeping on the streets. Homelessness will be solved by building more housing, supporting shelters and programs to get people on the path out of homelessness,” they said in a statement. 

They said cities and other jurisdictions also are responsible for ensuring the livability of their communities and that there needs to be a balance between those concerns and the plight faced by the thousands in the state without stable housing.

“The Legislature remains focused on addressing the root causes of homelessness, increasing the housing supply, and funding programs that help get people on a path out of houselessness,” they said.

Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including a recent stint as editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years.

Related stories:

U.S. Supreme Court sides with Grants Pass, allows ban on homeless people sleeping outdoors (June 28, 2024)

As Grants Pass case looms, Oregon advocates urge U.S. Supreme Court to protect homeless (April 9, 2024)

More demand than shelter openings for homeless: ‘There’s no rest’ (March 4, 2024)

Council Corner: Ashland responds to the homeless crisis (Feb. 22, 2024)

Ashland City Council approves camping ordinance in split vote (Dec. 7, 2023)

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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