What the Supreme Court’s Grants Pass ruling means for Salem

Salem won’t see immediate changes after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Friday that cities can ban homeless people from sleeping outside, even if they have nowhere else to go.

City policy currently restricts camping on public property, including requirements that sidewalks remain clear and campsites don’t block road visibility. 

The city plans to continue its services-first approach, and Oregon still limits under state law what cities can do to enforce camping bans. While Mayor-Elect Julie Hoy has spoken about wanting more accountability in homeless services, May council elections mean Salem will retain a progressive majority of city councilors in 2025 who have shown little appetite for banning camping.

But changing policies outside state lines are likely to put pressure on the whole system, providers say.

No one really knows what will happen next in Oregon, said Jimmy Jones, the executive director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, one of the region’s largest homeless service providers. The agency signed on to an amicus brief, in support of Grants Pass’ homeless population, as part of the Supreme Court case.

Jones suspects that in the next year or so, cities will begin to pressure legislators to change state laws passed in 2021 which brought protections to homeless people. Legislators took up the issue in response to lower court rulings in the Grants Pass case, which found cities can’t punish people for being homeless.

“It will be really necessary for communities to do the hard thing: to realize that these are Americans, they’re citizens, they’re human beings. And just because we can criminalize their existence doesn’t mean we should criminalize their existence,” he said.

The Grants Pass case began with a class action lawsuit filed by the Oregon Law Center in 2018 on behalf of unsheltered residents. The homeless residents said that because the Grants Pass church-affiliated, restrictive shelter could not meet needs, fining and arresting people with nowhere else to go constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Grants Pass argued before the Supreme Court that its use of fines and jail time for people sleeping outdoors was a needed solution to address rising homelessness. The city’s position, which justices backed in a 6-3 ruling, saw support from Pacific Northwest municipalities including the city of Portland, as well as the the League of Oregon Cities.

Under Grants Pass’ policies for trespassing, homeless people saw camping fines starting at $295 which nearly doubled when unpaid, according to court documents.

After lower courts sided with unsheltered people, the Oregon Legislature passed laws requiring that cities give campers 72 hours notice before sweeping their belongings, and that their camping policies be “objectively reasonable” for people experiencing homelessness.

Last July, the Salem City Council updated its laws to align with state policies. That change expanded daytime shelter hours and ended the city’s sit-lie ban.

In contrast to Grants Pass’ approach, Gretchen Bennett, Salem’s homeless liaison, said the city rarely fines homeless people for camping. Large encampments like the one at Salem’s Wallace Marine Park have remained for years despite city laws banning park camping.

The city issued two citations under its camping ordinance in 2023 and none in 2024, according to Angela Hedrick, police spokeswoman.

“Our basic approach is: we don’t go there,” Bennett said. “Our approach is we lead with trauma-informed, de-escalating conversations,” about how homeless people got there, where they want to go and what services would help.

Salem does that with a city homeless services team, the Salem Housing Authority’s outreach team, code compliance and teams that clean up trash.

Though Salem has over 1,000 shelter beds, more than doubling its emergency shelter capacity since 2018, a lack of low-barrier options means that sometimes these teams meet people and cannot provide a place for them to sleep that night.

“Maybe the person can’t toilet independently, or has pretty significant behavioral health challenges, and it’s beyond what the shelter is able to do,” Bennett said. “Maybe they have a bed, but they need the person to be able to get up alone if they fall down, they’re not allowed to lay hands and assist a person.”

In cases where there’s no space at assisted living facilities, Bennett says the teams connect those people with resources. Northwest Human Services can help in cases of medical need, or Northwest Senior and Disability Services can try to find them a solution.

“But we struggle,” Bennett said.

She said city leaders hadn’t yet discussed the Supreme Court ruling as of Friday morning, and she can’t speak to what Salem would do if Oregon’s laws get rolled back.

“That’s a fair and good question, but I think it would be hard to predict,” she said. “I think the city values being welcoming and livable and safe for every person. For people who are experiencing homelessness, for people who live, and work and visit, and play and shop. I think what’s clear to me is that value of trying to make our public spaces livable for everybody.”

Bennett said the city tried to strike that balance with its camping code changes last year, which allowed for public camping but required that encampments leave at least three feet of sidewalk space so people in wheelchairs can pass.

She said the city also looks at the location of camps and potential safety issues. 

“One of the things that I always follow-up on, that always worries me, is if someone is attempting to camp near a roadway. That always really scares me, because … if you have a wayward driver that just goes off track, or if you have a person asleep who rolls out into the road, I’m always terrified by that,” she said. 

Jones said Salem’s approach has been good, and he doesn’t expect it to be among the cities pushing toward enforcement right away. 

“At the same time, I do feel that nearly every city in Oregon will feel these pressures, and now that these federal protections are gone, that they’re going to have to do more to move people along,” he said. 

Statewide, he said there will likely be even more pressure on the state to improve affordable housing development, rental assistance and to fund more shelters.

The ruling has also given surrounding states the green light to enforce camping bans, Jones said. Though most of Marion and Polk County’s homeless residents are local, he said more enforcement in neighboring states could drive homeless people into Oregon.

“Which will, at the same time, put more pressures on Oregon legislators to recriminalize camping. So it’s not a good picture, any way you analyze it,” Jones said. “I think the saving grace is that nothing is going to change tonight, right? Absolutely nothing is going to change tonight.”

“We have these protections on the book in Oregon. Whether or not they hold, I think, is the great unknown,” he said. “But anyone who pretends that they’re going to hold without challenge, or they’re going to easily hold, or that they’re going to stand the test of time, I think is whistling in the dark.”

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-575-1251

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.