Julia Shumway

(Oregon Capital Chronicle) The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case that originated in Grants Pass and could set a precedent for how cities around the nation are able to respond to camps of people facing homelessness.

The case, Grants Pass v. Johnson, centers on a lawsuit by a group of people facing homelessness against city restrictions on outdoor sleeping.

Under the state law, cities are allowed to enact “objectively reasonable” restrictions on the time, place and manner of outside camps. For instance, the city of Beaverton adopted a new law allowing camping on public rights-of-way between 9 p.m. and 7:30 a.m., and Bend passed a new law banning camping in residential areas and requiring people to move locations at least 600 feet every 24 hours.

The Grants Pass case began as a challenge to a local law that prohibited people facing homelessness from using blankets, pillows or cardboard boxes to protect themselves from the elements while sleeping outside. A three-judge panel on the Ninth Circuit concluded that punishing people who lack shelter amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and violates the Eighth Amendment.

“At its most basic level, the case is about whether cities can punish people for existing outside when they have nowhere else to go,” Johnson said.

The case coincides with rising homelessness throughout the country, particularly on the West Coast. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last month announced that more than 650,000 people nationwide were homeless in January 2023, a 12% increase since the year prior. More than a third of the nation’s homeless population was in Washington, California and Oregon, which had more than 20,000 homeless residents at the time of the count.

Western states have far higher rates of unsheltered homelessness than other areas, with more than two-thirds of California’s homeless population and nearly two-thirds of Oregon’s lacking shelter. The 2023 data predates last year’s investments in shelters and rehousing, which added more than 1,000 new shelter beds.