City & Government, Cottage Grove, Creswell, Springfield

Supreme Court backs Grants Pass

As ink dries, local leaders uncertain about future of unhoused camping code

Oregon’s southern, rural town of Grants Pass has been thrust into the national limelight as the United States Supreme Court ruled in the City’s favor June 28, setting a new standard on how cities throughout the country may choose to address the homeless crisis.

The case of City of Grants Pass v. Johnson was originally argued in the Ninth Circuit Court, and the issue at hand was if the City’s five ordinances which punished people for sleeping or camping in public spaces were constitutional. The Ninth Circuit Court ruled in favor of Johnson, using the precedent of Martin v. Boise (2018).

Martin v. Boise allowed the Ninth Circuit Court to create a precedent that cities cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances if there are not enough shelter beds available for its homeless population. The Martin v. Boise decision was based on not allowing cities to partake in “cruel and unusual punishments,” as mentioned in the Eighth Amendment.

“Addressing the merits, the panel affirmed the district court’s ruling that the City of Grants Pass could not, consistent with the Eighth Amendment, enforce its anti-camping ordinances against homeless persons for the mere act of sleeping outside with rudimentary protection from the elements, or for sleeping in their car at night, when there was no other place in the City for them to go,” court staff wrote in the case’s summary. “The panel held that Martin applied to civil citations where, as here, the civil and criminal punishments were closely intertwined.”

But that didn’t stop the City of Grants Pass from bringing this issue up the ladder.

The case was heard at the Supreme Court this past April, and it just ruled 6-3 that the enforcement of camping regulations on public property is not a “cruel and unusual punishment” that the Eighth Amendment prohibits.

“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,” associate justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote in the Supreme Court’s opinion.

Associate justice Sonia Sotomayer wrote the dissent, centering her argument around the inhumane nature of penalizing unhoused people for not having adequate shelter.

“Sleep is a biological necessity, not a crime. For some people, sleeping outside is their only option. The City of Grants Pass jails and fines those people for sleeping anywhere in public at any time, including in their cars, if they use as little as a blanket to keep warm or a rolled-up shirt as a pillow. For people with no access to shelter, that punishes them for being homeless,” she wrote. “That is unconscionable and unconstitutional. Punishing people for their status is ‘cruel and unusual’ under the Eighth Amendment.”

Those who will be most affected by this ruling, unhoused people, are now left questioning what’s next.

When asked his thoughts on the Supreme Court decision, Richard Allen, a 64-year-old Creswell resident who is unhoused and currently taking shelter in a Conestoga hut, said he “understands ignorance.” He’s not in favor of rulings that can potentially pull his newfound stability out from under him, but Allen said he tries to take it on the chin.

He voiced the same concerns Sotomayer did regarding the importance of sleep, mentioning Creswell’s rigid time, place, and manner regulations.

“(The City code) makes it hard for a man to be able to go to work and get some rest,” Allen said.

He is currently making an income through various landscaping opportunities around town, which have become much more feasible for him now that he can safely sleep in a Castenoga hut instead of a tent that can only be set up from 10 p.m.-7:30 a.m.

What does this mean for Oregon?

This Supreme Court decision goes against Martin v. Boise, and it also goes against current Oregon legislation which has granted unhoused people in the state protection: House Bill 3115. HB 3115 required that a city or county’s laws regarding sitting, lying, sleeping, or keeping warm and dry outside on public property must be “objectively reasonable.”

Because HB 3115 has been implemented across the state since July 1, 2023, there is some confusion from Lane County’s local municipalities and residents on whether this Supreme Court ruling truly changes anything yet.

“As this case is quite recent, we are in the process of thoroughly reviewing the opinion to understand its application to Springfield. Our initial assessment suggests that it may affect the enforcement of our prohibited camping code. However, it is too early to determine whether any changes to the code will be necessary at this point,” wrote Elyse Ditzel, Springfield public information officer.

Mayor Sean VanGordon echoed this sentiment, saying a thorough analysis of this ruling’s effects can’t happen while the “ink is still drying.”

In Cottage Grove, city manager Michael Sauerwein said his understanding is that the state courts and legislature must address the June 28 ruling before any cities can utilize different enforcement options.

Mayor Candace Solesbee was clear that she supports the Supreme Court’s decisions, but it has created some anxieties as to what’s on the horizon.

“I feel that the Supreme Court overturning these unfunded mandates is a step in the right direction,” she said. “My fear is that this will be bad for Oregon because there will be a mass migration of the homeless population coming from (other states in the Ninth Circuit) because it’s easier to be homeless in Oregon now that those other states can enforce their laws.”

The City of Creswell was not able to be reached before The Chronicle’s deadline, but mayor Dave Stram said, while council has not yet met to discuss the implications of this ruling, “we could have a wild ride ahead of us.”

Creswell community members Bill Kent and Ed Gunderson, who may be well-known as the duo building Castenoga huts for the City’s unhoused population, also had much to say.

Kent brought up concerns over vagrancy laws making their return to Oregon as a way to remove unhoused people from cities, and Gunderson emphasized his disapproval that modern American culture does not value helping others.

“I’m hoping that not too many cities are mean-spirited, but it worries me because there’s a lot of mean-spiritedness in this country right now, and it seems like homeless people and immigrants are kinda the targets,” Gunderson said.

More information will be available as Lane County’s cities announce how they will address this ruling.



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