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Supreme Court upholds Oregon city’s ban on homeless people camping in public spaces

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday upheld a ban on homeless people making shelter in public spaces. It's the biggest ruling on homelessness in decades. And as Jefferson Public Radio's Jane Vaughan reports, it comes from one Oregon city's fight over camping regulations.

JANE VAUGHAN, BYLINE: Grants Pass is a city of about 40,000 people in southwestern Oregon. The big question the Supreme Court decided yesterday was whether the city has the right to enforce its public camping bans using tickets and fines when there's nowhere else for homeless people to sleep. Lawyers for the city's homeless residents argued, that's cruel and unusual punishment, which is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. But on Friday, the court's majority disagreed. After almost six years of legal battles, Grants Pass Mayor Sara Bristol says she's pleased it's finally over.

SARA BRISTOL: I'm glad that the decision has been made and that we can, I guess, take in that decision and digest the information and make a plan about where to go from here.

VAUGHAN: The city hasn't been able to enforce its camping ordinances for the past four years because of a court injunction while the case has been ongoing. It's not clear to Mayor Bristol when that will be lifted. What the long-term homelessness policies will look like in Grants Pass is also unclear. In 2021, Oregon passed its own law, placing limits on how cities regulate homelessness, although the limits are vague. So the city will now have to figure out what restrictions it can have while still following Oregon state law.

BRISTOL: It will probably be several weeks, at least, before we are able to move forward with any significant change that people will really notice.

VAUGHAN: Advocates for homeless residents in Grants Pass say Friday's decision won't help homeless people get what they need, which is housing. Dr. Bruce Murray volunteers with the Mobile Integrative Navigation Team, a nonprofit that provides services to unsheltered people.

BRUCE MURRAY: It's a punch in the gut. We expected this, but I'm just amazed at my own personal reaction. It's visceral, and it's really painful.

VAUGHAN: Along the Rogue River in Grants Pass, about a dozen tents are clustered in the shade of Tussing Park. Darren Starnes lives in one of them. He's been in Grants Pass for 35 years, but just became homeless a year and a half ago. He says it's like living in a zoo, because you're always on display.

DARREN STARNES: I hate it. I hate it. If we could have some quiet little corner somewhere where we weren't bothered, it wouldn't be so bad.

VAUGHAN: He disagrees with the Supreme Court's decision.

STARNES: They don't really care about the people of our country anymore. It's not about the - we, the people. It's about them, the corporations and the ones with the money. And that's all they care about.

VAUGHAN: Meanwhile, others in Grants Pass support the Supreme Court's ruling.

GINNY STEGMILLER: First impressions is, of course, I think they made the right decision.

VAUGHAN: Ginny Stegmiller helped form a volunteer group called Park Watch, which monitors the city's public parks for illegal activity. She says she's concerned about crime and drug use in the parks, where homeless people live. Stegmiller says she has been homeless herself and wants the city to build an urban campground or other form of shelter. There are some shelters in the city, but they have limited beds and rules to stay there that some people find burdensome.

STEGMILLER: I think it's important for the folks living in the park to be able to find a place to be, find a place to live. I've never thought that people living in the parks was a good thing.

VAUGHAN: Mayor Sara Bristol says she doesn't expect the police to change their enforcement tactics until the city has had a chance to discuss the ruling and give the department some direction. The Grants Pass police declined to comment, saying they wanted more time to understand the ruling.

For NPR News, I'm Jane Vaughan in Grants Pass, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jane Vaughan