As Grants Pass case looms, Oregon advocates urge U.S. Supreme Court to protect homeless

Oregon advocates for marginalized communities are speaking out on behalf of the state’s homeless and downtrodden as the U.S. Supreme  Court prepares to hear a case that started in Grants Pass and could set parameters for how cities nationwide can deal with homeless camps. 

The case, Grants Pass v. Johnson, began as a lawsuit by a group of homeless people against restrictions in the southern Oregon city on outdoor sleeping.

Although the case’s outcome will have a national impact on homeless camping laws, there will be less of one in Oregon. That’s because Oregon lawmakers passed a state law in 2021 that prevents cities from punishing people sleeping outside on public property. Under the state law, cities can put “objectively reasonable” restrictions that regulate the time, place and manner of camps without outright bans.

As the Supreme Court prepares to hear oral arguments on April 22 on the case, Oregon advocates are asking the court to remember the broader principles that frame the homeless issue, both in Oregon and across the nation. 

Disability Rights Oregon, the Oregon Food Bank and 15 other Oregon groups, including the Cascade AIDS Project, Habitat for Humanity of Oregon and Partners for a Hunger Free Oregon, have signed onto amicus briefs in support of the plaintiffs. At the core of their arguments, advocates say, is that homeless people should not be punished as jail time and fines will only deepen their challenges.

“Criminalization just doesn’t work as a tool to help people exit their experience from housing insecurity, their experience from homelessness,”  Loren Naldoza, Oregon Food Bank public policy advocate, said in an interview. “It only makes it worse.”

The Grants Pass case initially sought to overturn a local ordinance that barred homeless people from using blankets, pillows or cardboard boxes while sleeping outside in public to guard against the rain, snow and wind. 

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the ordinance was the equivalent of cruel and unusual punishment because it penalized people because they are homeless, violating the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 

Disability Rights Oregon signed onto a separate brief filed by disability advocates from across the nation. The brief notes that homeless people are more likely to suffer mental health conditions and other disabilities that contribute to their homelessness and encourages solutions like affordable and stable housing – not criminal penalties. 

“No mother chooses to raise her children without stable housing, but when she finds herself in that situation, that family needs a safe place to rest,” Jake Cornett, executive director and CEO of Disability Rights Oregon, said in a statement. “Criminalizing homelessness is not going to solve any problem in our communities. It’s past time for Oregon to focus on affordability, accessible shelters, low-barrier housing, and building a functioning behavioral health system.”

Separately, nearly 50 groups nationwide, including the Equality Federation in Portland, filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to declare that ordinances that criminalize homelessness are unconstitutional, including for members of the LGBTQ+ community who are disproportionately harmed by such ordinances.

The filing draws upon statistics to show the disproportionate impact of homelessness on the LGBTQ+ community. For example, LGBTQ+ youth make up 40% of unhoused youth and 65% of youth with frequent homelessness, even though they make up less than 10% of the population, the brief said. 

“Since a disproportionately high number of unhoused people are from the LGBTQIA+ community, this is an issue of particular importance for the organizations who joined our amicus brief,” said Chinyere Ezie, a senior attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based nonprofit social justice center. “We hope the Supreme Court will recognize the dangers posed to all unhoused people by the discriminatory ordinances at stake.”

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: [email protected]. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

STORY TIP OR IDEA? Send an email to Salem Reporter’s news team: [email protected].

Ben Botkin - Oregon Capital Chronicle

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. He has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report. Botkin has won multiple journalism awards for his investigative and enterprise reporting, including on education, state budgets and criminal justice.