Homeless woman challenges Grants Pass anti-camping ordinance in court

A class-action lawsuit filed in federal court accuses the city of Grants Pass of running homeless people out of town in violation of their constitutional rights.

The plaintiff, Debra Blake, identified in the suit as “an involuntarily homeless resident” for the past seven years after losing her job and housing, contends that the only shelters in the city for homeless people are run by the Gospel Rescue Mission and are nearly always full.

Blake says she’s often told by police in Grants Pass to “move along” and has faced repeated fines for sleeping in an alley or for prohibited camping. Prosecutors also have filed criminal trespass allegations against her.

She now faces more than $4,000 in fines for the repeated violations, though she argues there’s no alternative housing or shelters where she can stay, according to the suit.

“By punishing the acts of resting, sleeping or seeking shelter in public, without providing any legal place for most homeless people to conduct such activities, Grants Pass effectively punishes the status of homelessness,” attorney Edward Johnson wrote in the suit.

Johnson is a lawyer for the Oregon Law Center, which is representing Blake.  

The lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Medford, alleges that the city’s anti-camping ordinance and criminal trespass laws represent cruel and unusual punishment and are selectively enforced against the homeless population, violating their Eighth and 14th Amendment rights.

Mark Bartholomew, city attorney for Grants Pass, declined comment on the suit.

According to the suit, Josephine County found 654 people living on the street in 2017, and this school year, Grants Pass School District No. 7 reported 513 homeless youths enrolled in the district.

In September, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with six homeless people living in Boise, Idaho, who sued the city in 2009 over a local ordinance that banned sleeping in public places. The federal appeals court found that cities can’t prosecute people for sleeping on the streets if they have nowhere else to go.

Earlier this month, the federal appeals court revived a homeless man’s case challenging Portland’s anti-camping ordinance as a violation of the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment. 

— Maxine Bernstein




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