The Town at the Center of a Supreme Court Battle Over Homelessness

Inside a warming shelter, Laura Gutowski detailed how her life had changed since she became homeless two and a half years ago in Grants Pass, a former timber hub in the foothills of southern Oregon.

Her husband’s death left her without steady income. She lived in a sedan, and then in a tent, in sight of the elementary school where her son was once a student. She constantly scrambled to move her belongings to avoid racking up more fines from the police.

“I never expected it to come to this,” Ms. Gutowski, 55, said. She is one of several hundred homeless people in this city of about 40,000 that is at the center of a major case before the Supreme Court on Monday with broad ramifications for the nationwide struggle with homelessness.

After Grants Pass stepped up enforcement of local ordinances that banned sleeping and camping in public spaces by ticketing, fining and jailing the homeless, lower courts ruled that it amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment” by penalizing people who had nowhere else to go.

Many states and cities that are increasingly overwhelmed by homelessness are hoping the Supreme Court overturns that decision — or severely limits it. They argue that it has crippled their efforts to address sprawling encampments, rampant public drug use and fearful constituents who say they cannot safely use public spaces.

That prospect has alarmed homeless people and their advocates, who contend that a ruling against them would lead cities to fall back on jails, instead of solutions like affordable housing and social services.

The case highlights the fierce divide over the thorny issue of how to regulate homelessness.

Theane Evangelis, a lawyer representing Grants Pass, said the Supreme Court’s decision would widely reverberate. If it does not overturn the lower-court decision, she said, cities around the United States “would find their hands tied just like Grants Pass, and the problem of growing encampments will spread throughout the country.”

Ed Johnson, a lawyer for the Oregon Law Center, a nonprofit legal aid group, who represents the homeless residents, said a ruling against them would strip them of their few protections. “Can a city make it illegal on every inch of city land, every minute of the day, for people to live outside when they have nowhere else to go?”

Homelessness across the country climbed to the highest total on record last year, increasing by 12 percent to more than 650,000 people, according to a count by the federal government.

Questions around how far cities can go in policing homelessness have exploded, in part, because of a crucial decision in 2018 by the appeals court, in a case from Boise, Idaho. It ruled that penalizing someone for sleeping outdoors if no shelter beds were available was a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

Shortly afterward, a group of homeless people in Grants Pass challenged the city’s ordinances.

A federal judge temporarily sided with the plaintiffs, finding the city had no shelter that met the requirement from the 2018 decision.

A divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed, and the city challenged the ruling, asking the Supreme Court to weigh in.

Similar challenges have played out across the West, including in California, Arizona and Hawaii.

The issue has been a political vulnerability for Democratic leaders in big cities, like San Francisco and Los Angeles, giving rise to unusual alliances with conservative groups in asking the justices to clarify their legal power.

Like many cities across the United States, Grants Pass has been subject to the same economic and social forces that have compounded homelessness over the years. Rents and home prices have increased. Drought and wildfires have devastated neighboring areas, putting more pressure on an already limited housing supply. Some local leaders, including the police, say that a controversial statewide measure aimed at decriminalizing drug possession led to an addiction crisis.

The anger boiled over in 2013, when residents began complaining about people sleeping in alleyways and urinating and defecating in the city’s downtown area, a busy corridor of restaurants, coffee shops and businesses. Tents began popping up in the parks, including a leafy expanse along the Rogue River, the site of an annual Memorial Day festival.

At a hearing about those concerns, a City Council member at the time told those gathered that “the point is to make it uncomfortable enough for them in our city so they will want to move on down the road,” according to a summary of minutes from the meeting. (In a recent interview, the member said her comments were aimed at outsiders committing crimes.)

City officials ultimately stepped up enforcement of existing ordinances that carried hundreds of dollars in fines and, if a person repeatedly returned to city property, could eventually lead to jail.

In the years since, more and more tents went up in the parks, as people who had camped in nearby forests came into town to be closer to services. A muddy section of a marquee park has become known as Tent City.

In early March, a police officer, responsible for keeping order in the encampments, showed several to me. In one, a boat ramp had been transformed into a squatter camp. Public bathrooms were locked by the authorities, and drinking fountains were turned off. Bright red portable toilets were set up, but there were no working sinks or places to wash or get clean water. Trash and what appeared to be drug paraphernalia littered the area.

Mayor Sara Bristol, a registered independent who survived a recall campaign by residents angry about the homeless people camping in the parks, acknowledged the difficulties of a comprehensive solution given that more systemic issues were often at play.

“This is an ongoing struggle,” said Ms. Bristol, who took office after the case began making its way through the courts. “I do believe the people are local people. I see that they are in many cases older or disabled. They’re not people who could just go get a job and find housing.”

But some residents insist that solutions like building a shelter or offering more mental health services would make the town a magnet for the homeless, all but ensuring that the parks would be lined with tents and disrupt their quality of life.

David Dapper, 59, who lives down the street from a park, said homeless people camping there often wander by his front yard.

He recounted the boisterous noise one night in June 2021, shortly after he and his wife had moved from California. His wife, armed with a knife, “went down there and asked them to tone it down,” he said, as he followed in close pursuit with a pistol. He watched as several people surrounded her and began coming toward him, prompting him to fire “a warning shot,” he said.

“It’s miserable living near a park,” he said.

Chief Warren Hensman of the Grants Pass Police Department said other residents had expressed concerns about safety, underlining the value of laws as a way of getting people into treatment.

“I would say the mental health and drug addiction piece just runs rampant through our community,” he said, adding that families were “afraid to bring their children to the splash pad because there’s somebody having an episode 25 feet away.”

But Dr. Bruce Murray, a retired doctor who helped found a local nonprofit that assisted those living in the parks, worried that the laws were a temporary salve that ignored otherwise untenable living circumstances for a stigmatized population.

“This community has not wanted to build shelters, urban campgrounds, any facility,” said Dr. Murray, who compared some of the illness and scarcity of resources in the parks to conditions he often saw in refugee camps. “I think they just want them to go away.”

One night, he worked quietly in the back room of the warming shelter, changing wound dressings for residents.

For Ms. Gutowski, whose cot was just steps away, the Supreme Court case seemed distant from her daily life.

Ms. Gutowski said that she had been addicted to drugs and that while she no longer used, she continued to struggle with anxiety and depression.

Her oldest daughter, Mia Romain, who lives in Arizona but remains in contact, said she wished her mother had made different choices, including finding work after her children had grown and being more open to offers of help.

“Those choices just led to a snowball, and she ran out of options,” Ms. Romain said.

Ms. Gutowski said she did not want all homeless people to be painted by a broad brush, voicing concern that a loss at the Supreme Court would do just that.

“Now it’s everybody thinks of the homeless as everybody is a drug addict — everybody is a junkie and a criminal and a thief and somebody who can’t be trusted or something,” she said. “And a big part of that is the law enforcement and the City Council, and how they’re treating us.”

By mid-April, Ms. Gutowski was still living in the parks. A social worker was helping to arrange visits to apartment complexes that accepted federal housing vouchers. She learned that she qualified for widow’s benefits, which would bring her money each month. She had regular appointments with a therapist.

She hoped that after finding housing, she could begin to rebuild her health and her relationships with her family. She dreamed of somewhere she could hang pictures on the wall and cook her seven-cheese manicotti.

“I want to do many things that I used to do, just the simplest things,” she said.

There was one exception: She used to treasure camping trips in the woods. “Camping, I hate camping now,” she said.

Julie Tate and Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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