As Supreme Court takes up homeless ban, a city’s unhoused feel abandoned

(WP)  Laura Gutowski pitches her tent in the same park where her son grew up playing Little League Baseball. Johnathon Babb’s favorite place to sleep is a few feet from the river where his twin brother died when they were teenagers.

They are two among hundreds of people living outside in this small, conservative city in Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley, wedged between the Siskiyou and Coast mountains, and their experiences are part of an escalating humanitarian crisis.

That fact does not make Grants Pass exceptional, especially in the American West, where soaring housing costs and a collage of other causes have driven a growing number of vulnerable residents into homelessness. Even so, Grants Pass finds itself in a unique position: This city of 40,000 will have a chance to shape policy decisions countrywide when it defends its anti-camping regulations in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday.

The case will decide whether governments can enforce laws against people sleeping outside when they have nowhere else to go. The decision, expected in late June, could be the most consequential ruling on the rights of the unhoused in decades, and either sanction or derail increasingly punitive efforts across the country that seek to deal with homelessness.

Mobile Integrative Navigation Team (MINT) homeless advocate Jessica Meller, a registered nurse, center, works with a volunteer to help an unhoused man with identification paperwork issues at Morrison Park in Grants Pass, Ore. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Unhoused senior citizens Kim Morris and Kevin Gevas call a homeless advocate from MINT at Tussing Park in Grants Pass, Ore. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

More than 60 government entities large and small — from Honolulu to Maryland to the United States Department of Justice — along with dozens of advocacy organizations, academics, and lawmakers, have filed court briefs in the case, underscoring the widespread interest in the outcome and its potentially sweeping implications for the nation’s state capitals and city streets.

But in the public parks of Grants Pass, where residents with no access to shelter beds take refuge in tents each night, the case is about something much more elemental: Whether they’ll be able to continue to survive in a city many have called home for most of their lives.

“It wasn’t that long ago that I was part of the community,” said Gutowski, sitting at a picnic table in a park about a mile from her old house. “But the more I’m out here, the more angry I get. … They’re not trying to make things better for us or help us have another shelter, or keep us safe — or help us even medically or mentally. They’re just trying to push, push, push until we give up and say, ‘Fine, I’ll leave town.’”

Unhoused people have set up a tent community at Riverside Park in Grants Pass, Ore. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

A political paralysis

The events that sparked the Grants Pass case unfolded with little fanfare.

In 2013, city leaders convened a roundtable meeting to address complaints from businesses and residents about increased crime they blamed on the local unhoused population, which they said had spiked after steep budget cuts reduced jail capacity. Officials floated a range of responses, including compiling a “most unwanted list” that would exclude homeless people who break the law from social services and loading offenders onto a bus and shipping them out of town, according to a copy of the meeting’s minutes.

Following the roundtable, the city began strictly enforcing measures, most of which were already on the books, that outlawed sleeping or camping in public spaces like parks and in parked cars, imposing fines ranging from $75 to $295 that increase substantially when unpaid and that could eventually result in jail time or a parking ban. That sparked an initial legal complaint, which was filed in 2018 on behalf of Debra Blake, Gloria Johnson, and John Logan, three unhoused individuals, who said the city was punishing them unconstitutionally “based on their status of being involuntarily homeless.”

Just as the city stepped up enforcement, its population soared and housing construction fell behind. Over the past decade, the city has built roughly half the number of units it needs to house everyone, said Doug Walker, a member of the Grants Pass Housing Advisory Committee. The average rental price for a studio apartment hovers around $1,000 per month.

“The homeless crisis is a symptom of the housing crisis,” Walker said. “We have very little housing and the housing we do have is very expensive, and that drives people onto the street.”

Meller, right, helps Samantha Crutcher move her campsite in Grants Pass, Ore. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Crutcher, who was told by police that she must move her tent or receive a fine or go to jail, at Riverside Park in Grants Pass, Ore. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The most recent reliable estimate puts the number of unhoused Grants Pass residents at more than 600, with another 1,000 living on the edge of homelessness, but local service providers say at least twice as many are homeless.

Making matters worse, Grants Pass does not have a homeless shelter. Its only large-scale transitional housing program, the Gospel Rescue Mission, is a privately run religious facility with 138 beds and stringent requirements for participants, such as twice-daily chapel attendance and abstinence from substances and romantic relationships.

The mission’s executive director, Brian Bouteller, supports the city’s position in the case because he believes an outright camping ban will drive more people into the organization’s program and off the street. Allowing unhoused people to stay in the parks, he said, was akin to enabling unlawful behavior. He said he would also welcome additional, privately funded shelters in the city.

“I believe that lawbreakers should be coerced into being law-abiding citizens,” Bouteller said.

In 2020, a district court judge sided with the unhoused individuals behind the lawsuit and barred the city from enforcing its anti-camping ban in parks at night if no other shelter was available. Grants Pass Mayor Sara Bristol said the ruling plunged the city into political paralysis.

Bristol said if it were up to her, the city would spend less time fighting this legal battle and more time building new housing and shelters. But that decision rests with the city council, she said, and a majority has wanted to push ahead with the case. The council president, Vanessa Ogier, declined to comment and directed questions to the city’s legal representatives.

Grants Pass residents have also opposed proposed locations for new shelters and outdoor campsites, and some backed a recall petition that unsuccessfully sought to oust Bristol over her handling of the crisis. A neighborhood watch group has continued to raise alarms about conditions in the city’s cherished green spaces.

At one park on a recent Saturday, parents combed a baseball diamond for drug paraphernalia before their kids took the field and recovered several used needles, said Grants Pass police chief Warren Hensman.

“What we’re seeing from a lot of people in the unhoused community,” Hensman said, “is we have this unpredictable behavior” when individuals are using drugs or experiencing a mental health episode.

Bristol, for her part, said she knows the situation in the parks is untenable, which is why, no matter what the Supreme Court decides, she wants the city to build more shelters fast.

“I want our public spaces to be safe and clean and used as they were intended,” Bristol said. “And I also want to make sure that homeless people have a place where they can be safe and sleep and get help if they want to get help. And I think we can have both, but not everybody thinks that.”

MINT homeless advocates serve hundreds of homeless people, like Mara Johnson and Crutcher, left, during a weekly offering of groceries, warm food, supplies and living essentials for the unhoused community at Morrison Park in Grants Pass, Ore. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

High legal stakes

The Supreme Court agreed to weigh in on this case after hearing pleas from an unlikely coalition that spanned the political spectrum, including liberal standard-bearers such as California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and officials in deep-red states such as Montana and Alabama. Their legal briefs described governments overwhelmed by the scale and complexity of the problem: Across the country, more than 600,000 people are homeless, according to federal data, and nearly half sleep outside.

In most places, there are not enough shelter beds to accommodate everyone who needs one. That gap between the need for services and their availability is at the heart of the Supreme Court case. Lawyers for homeless residents say the Grants Pass laws violate Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment when applied to individuals who have no access to shelter.

“This combination of ordinances makes it unlawful for people to live outside on every inch of public property in Grants Pass 24 hours a day,” said Ed Johnson, the director of litigation at the Oregon Law Center and lead attorney for the plaintiffs. “It’s terrible policy, it’s morally wrong and it’s unconstitutional.”

Johnson has insisted that state and local officials are still free to restrict tents in public spaces, clear encampments, and even fine homeless people who decline other shelter options, which some do for a range of reasons. The issue, he said, is when a city punishes people who have no alternatives.

Meanwhile, the Grants Pass legal team has maintained that fines and short jail terms for camping on public property are neither cruel nor unusual, but instead are tools used by governments throughout the country to preserve public spaces and protect public health.

“These laws are essential to running a city, and cities across the country, as well as the federal government, rely on camping laws just like the ones in Grants Pass,” said Theane D. Evangelis, the city’s lead attorney. If the court were to rule in favor of the plaintiffs, she said, “cities across the country would find their hands tied as they work to address the urgent homelessness crisis.”

MINT homeless advocates and volunteers, including Ashley Hanson, center, serve hundreds of homeless people in Grants Pass, Ore. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
MINT homeless advocates serve lines of unhoused people at Morrison Park in Grants Pass, Ore. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

In a legal brief filed in advance of the oral arguments, the Biden administration charted something of a middle path. Solicitor General Elizabeth B. Prelogar told the court that anti-camping laws are unconstitutional when they target homeless people who have no access to indoor shelter.

But Prelogar urged the justices to return the case to the lower courts to ensure that the city’s laws are not blocked across the board. Such bans should still be allowable, she argued, if an investigation shows that a given person does in fact have access to shelter.

Garrett Epps, a law professor at the University of Oregon, said he expects a majority of the court to be sympathetic to the city’s arguments, but cautioned that the justices could issue a more narrow decision than Grants Pass is advocating.

A ruling that allows cities-wide discretion to pass restrictive homelessness laws, Epps said, could touch off “a race to the bottom,” where neighboring localities pass increasingly severe policies to drive unhoused residents into other jurisdictions.

“The stakes in that sense are pretty high,” Epps said. “Anybody who lives out here understands how important this issue is and how important the precedent being tested here is.”

MINT homeless advocate Cassy Leach, a registered nurse, checks on “Sunshine,” who is homeless, and who had just received a warning from the city to leave Riverside Park. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Small victories

Cassy Leach is a near-constant, indefatigable presence among the unhoused in Grants Pass. Just about every day, the former emergency room nurse goes from park to park, checking in on everyone living there. She has become a Swiss Army knife for the community — there when they need laundry, groceries Narcan; a job reference, a ride across town, or a good laugh.

Leach helped launch the Mobile Integrative Navigation Team, known around the city as MINT, in 2022 to help fill gaps in services for those experiencing homelessness.

“We just try to adapt to whatever the community need is at the time, and it’s clear, in Grants Pass, it’s a safety net,” Leach said. “They have nothing.”

Last month, the city council tried to restrict organizations like MINT from operating in the public parks, but Bristol, the mayor, vetoed the measure. Unhoused residents say the city has become hostile, even dangerous. People camping in parks report waking up often to the sound of revolving trucks and drivers screaming profanity-laced tirades, telling them to “get a job,” “get out of our parks” or to “go die.”

Police recently announced they had arrested an 18-year-old “vigilante” who had been roaming one park, shaking tents and yelling. When one unhoused woman emerged from her tent, the suspect hit her in the face with a thick tree branch, authorities said.

Many homeless people in Grants Pass have strong ties to the area — like Gutowski, whose family moved to the city when she was 10. She grew up loving the outdoors and she raised her own children here.

After her husband died of a pulmonary embolism in 2021, Gutowski, 55, found herself without a job or savings. She wound up living in her car until that broke down and she moved outside, traversing the often muddy landscape with her walker.

Gutowski said she understands the community’s frustration over the condition of the parks. But like so many, she said, she has no other option. Gutowski has been trying desperately to secure subsidized housing. She’s on more waiting lists that she can track.

“This is our home. This is where we have to be,” she said. “Otherwise we’re going to be on your sidewalks, in the doorways of your businesses, in the alleyways. We’re going to be more visible to people driving through town.”

Leach and Meller help Timothy James “TJ” Wood, center, leave a temporary day shelter and move him to a another campsite after police told him he must move his tent or receive a fine or go to jail. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Meller and Leach help Wood, center, move his campsite to another park location. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

At Baker Park, less than a mile north of Gutowski’s tent, Babb, 52, was walking along the Rogue River on a recent drizzly afternoon, still processing his father’s death that week. It was a similar event — his mother’s death a couple of years earlier — that spiraled him into addiction and homelessness.

But this park — the site of another family tragedy decades ago, when Babb’s brother died after leaping off a tall bridge into the river below — now brings him peace. When he’s here, he feels closer to his late twin.

Babb isn’t optimistic about the Supreme Court case — the court, like his hometown, is a conservative place, he said.

“As soon as the spotlight’s gone, it’s just going to go back to business as usual,” Babb said. “And business as usual was don’t ask, don’t tell, let’s just pretend they don’t exist.”

Instead, these days, he’s focusing on what he calls “small victories.” Replacing his lost Social Security card: small victory. Learning to put a park’s address, rather than its name, on his state-issued ID so it wouldn’t be immediately obvious to potential employers he was homeless: a small victory. And setting aside some time each day to write: small victory.

Because whatever the court decides, Babb said, he and others like him will still have to figure out how to carry on.

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