Oregon reacts: U.S. Supreme Court sides with Grants Pass in homelessness case

Oregonians are speaking out after the Friday, June 28, news that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a homelessness ordinance in Grants Pass, Oregon, saying the city’s prohibition on outdoor camping does not violate the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

The ruling could pave the way for stricter rules on homelessness in every Oregon community, and the ripple effect could reach across state lines.

“Today’s ruling doesn’t change the immediate reality on our streets,” wrote Jessica Vega Pederson, chairwoman of the Multnomah County commission, “and it doesn’t change the urgent work ahead of us: People still need places to stay warm and dry and ultimately leave homelessness. People still need additional services to transition into shelter or housing. And we must continue to do more — and do it faster and better.”

Vega Pederson said the county and the office of the Portland mayor are working to build “a Homelessness Response System and develop and deliver on a Homelessness Response Action Plan that fundamentally reshapes and refocuses our work so we can serve thousands more people in need moving forward.”

Reader William D’Alessandro penned a letter to the Portland Tribune, late Friday morning. “The Supreme Court got this one right (astonishing given its recent legal track record).

“Maybe, yes: The decision could pave the way for stricter rules on the way unhoused people can live. The decision could also pave the way for stricter rules on the way unhoused people can choose to live.”

And Sisters of the Road, a Portland-based group that has long advocated for homeless people, sent out a plea for donations following the ruling. “Let’s be clear: Camping bans do not solve houselessness,” said Kat Mahoney, executive director of Sisters of the Road in a separate release. “The heartbreaking reality is that because of today’s decision, we can expect to see a rise in armed police arresting and fining unhoused people and more people being traumatized and injured during police interactions. Sisters will remain steadfast in supporting strategies that address the root causes of houselessness and uplifting the experiences and humanity of our unhoused community.”

The Legislature’s top housing leaders released a joint statement. Sen. Kayse Jama, D-Portland, chairs the Senate Housing and Development Committee, while Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, chairs the House Housing and Homelessness Committee.

“Our goal remains making sure every Oregonian has access to safe, affordable housing so no one has to resort to sleeping on the streets. Homelessness will be solved by building more housing, supporting shelters and programs to get people on the path out of homelessness,” they wrote. “Local jurisdictions have a duty to maintain livability for everyone in their communities — and, importantly, there needs to be a reasonable balance between those concerns and the reality that too many Oregonians don’t have anywhere safe to sleep. Today’s Supreme Court ruling does nothing to solve the housing and homelessness crisis in Oregon. The legislature remains focused on addressing the root causes of homelessness, increasing the housing supply, and funding programs that help get people on a path out of houselessness.”

Rep. Jeff Helfrich, House Republican leader, also responded to the news. “Our parks were never meant to be campgrounds, and now our cities can finally begin restoring our communities’ public spaces,” Helfrich said. “The Supreme Court’s ruling is a victory for common sense and highlights what conservative leadership looks like.”

Not all immediate reactions were in-state. An email from the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia attacked the high court ruling because of its potential impact on at-risk youth. “This is a devastating setback for the millions of young people nationwide who experience homelessness each year,” said Jessica Feierman, senior managing director at Juvenile Law Center. “Young people facing challenges need support, affordable housing and living wages, not cruel punishment for the simple act of sleeping in a public place with a blanket or other protection from the cold.”

Feierman pointed out that, in her dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor cited a Lambda Legal/Juvenile Law Center brief, quoting: “For young people, ‘family dysfunction and rejection, sexual abuse, juvenile legal system involvement, “aging out” of the foster care system, and economic hardship’ make them particularly vulnerable to homelessness.”

Big, impactful decision by the high court often find their way into local political campaigns, as well. The campaign offices of candidates for Portland City Council and for Oregon attorney general weighed in after the ruling.

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