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The City of Grants Pass case: Can we leave politics out of homelessness?

By Thomas A. Ped
Williams Kastner
Chair, Homelessness Committee, Revitalize Portland Coalition

Our nation’s political divisions were on display in City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson.  It’s too bad, because this distracts us from solving homelessness.

 

At issue before the U.S. Supreme Court were the City of Grants Pass’s anti-sleeping and anti-camping ordinances which provide for, among other things, the possibility of 30 days in jail after multiple violations.

 

The political divisions within our state itself were evident.  The petition of the City of Grants Pass was supported by some 32 cities, including the City of Portland, plus the League of Oregon Cities, representing 241 Oregon cities; the National League of Cities, representing more than 19,000 cities and towns nationally; and a group of 20 States.

 

The State of Oregon was not part of the group of 20 States supporting the petition.   Neither did Multnomah County participate in favor of the ordinances.

 

Right off the bat in the Supreme Court’s opinion, the majority arguably took a swipe at West coast cities, which tend to lean liberal.  In the very first sentence, this particular majority of the Court, which leans conservative, stated:  “Many cities across the American West face a homelessness crisis.”

 

But homelessness is a national issue, not just an “American West” problem.  It’s a problem everywhere in our country.

 

The City of Grants Pass ordinances had been blocked by lower courts under the case of Martin v. City of Boise.  In that case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that cities cannot enforce  public-camping ordinances whenever the number of homeless individuals in a jurisdiction exceeds the number of “practically available” shelter beds.

 

Ultimately, the Supreme Court accepted the City’s argument that Martin was too difficult to comply with, and may only be making things worse.  In Los Angeles, for example, it reportedly takes three days just to count the homeless population block-by-block, even with the participation of thousands of volunteers.

 

The City of Portland argued that a full set of enforcement options is needed, based on evidence that from 2022 to 2024, “over 70 percent of their approximately 3,500 offers of shelter beds to homeless individuals were declined.”

 

The Supreme Court’s majority suggested that the City of Grants Pass ordinances were necessary so that policymakers can have a “full panoply of tools in the policy toolbox to tackle the complicated issues of housing and homelessness.” 

 

In contrast to the Court’s majority, the dissenting opinion in City of Grants Pass seemed to have a leftward political slant.  With regard to the causes of homelessness, the dissenting justices mentioned factors such as rising housing costs, physical and psychiatric disabilities, domestic and sexual abuse, and “climate events.”

 

Notably absent from the dissent’s list was the generally accepted fact that some 75 percent of homeless individuals struggle with substance abuse.

 

In other words, the dissent declined to recognize that for as many heartbreaking stories as there are regarding people who became homeless due to factors beyond their control, there are just as many if not more individuals whose situations are more intractable and who may present the most significant challenges to crime prevention and ensuring public safety.

 

The divisions reflected in the City of Grants Pass decision show that we as a society are still not on the same page with respect to the causes of, and solutions to, homelessness.  We must try harder. 

 

Reaching a community consensus on the issues gives us the best chance to move forward to the greatest effect.  Mutual buy-in can only come from honest recognition of the all of the causes of homelessness, and the hard work of negotiating from all viewpoints and hammering out compromises.  Closed-door discussions and policymaking by exclusionary groups with only like-minded views will not get it done. 

 

We will never probably agree on all of the particulars of combatting homelessness.  But only through clear-eyed debate without the political rancor can we have the best chance to do the greatest good for the greatest number.

 

By Thomas A. Ped
Tom advocates for public-private partnerships to tackle unsheltered homelessness. He serves as the chair of the Homelessness committee at Revitalize Portland and works as a regional land-use attorney at WILLIAMS KASTNER. Additionally, he holds the position of secretary on the board of directors of the Revitalize Portland Coalition.
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