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‘Where do we put them?’: C.O. homeless advocate, DA weigh in on pending Grants Pass homeless ruling

(Update: Adding video, comments from DA and homeless advocate)

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) - US Supreme Court justices heard over two hours of arguments Monday on "City of Grants Pass V. Johnson," a class-action suit that challenges the southern Oregon city's ability to enforce camping codes related to sleeping in public spaces.

The plaintiffs cited that the city codes specifically target homeless individuals, revoking their right to sleep in public places. The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, saying the City of Grants Pass was violating the Eighth Amendment of "cruel and unusual punishment" by not having anywhere else for them to go.

By late June, the Supreme Court will decide in a case closely watched whether the city and other local governments should have the ability to enforce citations in public areas for sleeping, effectively deciding the fate of cities across the country in their handling of the growing homelessness crisis.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said Monday, "Where do we put them? If every city, every village, every town lacks compassion and passes a law identical to this? Where are they supposed to sleep?"

Central Oregon homeless advocates are weighing in on Monday's hearing of the landmark case.

Eric Garrity of the Bend Equity Project said, "I'm sympathetic to the fact that we would like to have our public rights of way. We'd like to have a clean, beautiful city. And currently, by pursuing this criminalization route or continual displacement, it in fact worsens the crisis that we're all dealing with seeing evidence of."

If the Supreme Court decides city governments cannot enforce laws, Deschutes County District Attorney Steve Gunnels says there will be a complete overhaul of law enforcement's approach to the problems.

"Are they able to, for example, issue a citation to somebody who's been camping in a place for a long time or spreading trash, or making the place unhealthy due to waste that is left at a location?" Gunnels asked. "Are they able to take any enforcement action at all?"

The homelessness debate has long been left up to states and local governments to decide, but the DA says this ruling could change that.

"What the solution is, is up for debate. But there are problems," Gunnels said. "And this case will create a blanket rule, hopefully for the United States, so that we can at least have uniformity and a clear understanding of what the limits are for enforcement of the laws that the Legislature passes."

Deschutes County has rules against camping on county-owned land. Camps are allowed in a spot for 24 hours, and a 72-hour notice has to be given before the area is cleared. Unlike Grants Pass in general, no fines are given for violations. And the universal issue - where can they move to - is a big part of the challenge here as well.

Homeless advocates say the Supreme Court case is creating more uneasiness, on an issue already filled with uncertainty.

"It's one concern on a laundry list of concerns," Garrity said. "I think the message that I've been trying to communicate to folks is that regardless of the outcome of the court case, there will be advocates continuing to fight for them, to look out for them."

Article Topic Follows: Government-politics

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Isabella Warren

Isabella Warren is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Isabellahere.


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