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Grants Pass, the small Oregon town at the heart of debates on homelessness in the United States

Photo: Saul Loeb Agence France-Presse The city of Grants Pass' treatment of the homeless was brought to the U.S. Supreme Court in a class action by homeless people this spring.

Fabien Deglise to Grants Pass

Published at 0:00 Updated at 12:23 a.m.

  • United States

“Dogs!” Thieves ! Bullies! »

On this May morning, in a park in the small town of Grants Pass, in southern Oregon, David Rich, 41, couldn't help but see a police car passing at low speed very close to him. The second in less than 10 minutes.

“It’s harassment,” said the Iraq war veteran, than a drug problem tough sent to the streets several years ago. Today he claims to be “clean” and only consumes “legal” cannabis, even if he continues to live without a fixed address, in a tent sometimes pitched in Morrison Park, sometimes in another park.

“They stole my guitar, these dogs!” Every three days, they show up to give us tickets and force us to change our campsite. We are just homeless people. It is not by choice that we live outside, and we should be able to do so freely. But they treat us like criminals,” adds the man, a former carpenter who ironically contributed to the construction of 40 houses in the city — and “maybe even more,” he adds.

In the heart of rural Oregon, Grants Pass, a town only slightly larger than Sorel-Tracy, has all the attributes of a peaceful and charming place, with its heart crossed by the Rogue River and its temperate climate bathed in sunshine nearly 200 days a year. A humming corner planted in the middle of the mountains, but which has unwillingly found itself at the center of attention for several weeks in the United States due to the treatment deemed “cruel” that it imposes on its homeless people.

The case, brought by a collective action of homeless people, landed this spring before the American Supreme Court. A verdict, the most significant on the issue of homelessness in nearly four decades in the United States, is expected in the coming weeks.

“Grants Pass has become a symbol of the segregation of the homeless,” says Cassy Leach. The nurse volunteers for the local organization Mint, which helps people living on the city's streets. “Rural America doesn’t know how to deal with homelessness. It generally opposes repression, fines, harassment, which only move the problem from park to park or to the neighboring town. This does not create the housing these people need. And, ultimately, this strategy goes nowhere. »

Grants Pass, the small Oregon town at the heart of debates on homelessness in the United States

Photo: Fabien Deglise Le Devoir Cassy Leach (left), a nurse with local Mint, stands alongside Laura Jutowsky, 45, who was forced to move to a Grants Pass town park after the death of her husband in 2021.

After several weeks of hearings held in April and May, the country's highest court will have to rule on the decision of a Federal Court of Appeal which, in 2022, imposed a moratorium in Grants Pass on the enforcement of three municipal bylaws prohibiting sleeping and camping in parks, streets and alleys. Bans which, according to this judgment, are not justifiable due to the lack of shelter and affordable housing available for people living without shelter in the city.

Between 600 and 1,000 people today live on the streets of this small community of 39,000 inhabitants, estimates the organization Mint, which deploys its volunteers once a week in the parks to offer them meals and help in order to help them escape the spiral of homelessness.

Local police officers, however, have other regulations — on parking, on garbage management, on noise , on loitering… — to continue to make life difficult for the homeless.

Housing shortage

“It was the circumstances of life that led me there, not a life choice,” says Aaron, in his early thirties. He sits in a dilapidated van that has become his refuge for three months; he parked it under the bridge spanning Riverside Park. He says he makes a living from small maintenance jobs on the land of local residents since he reached the end of the aid to which he was entitled.

“The rents have has exploded here in recent years, and the supply of low-cost housing has completely disappeared. It’s difficult for people like me who have lived here for more than 20 years with low income,” he explains.

In an interview given to the local NBC station, Grants Pass Mayor Sara Bristol admitted that this whole thing “comes down to a question of unavailable housing” and the previous administration, which in 2019 adopted “measures intended to make it more difficult to existence of the homeless to encourage them to leave the city”.

Grants Pass, the small Oregon town at the heart of debates on homelessness in the United States

Photo: Fabien Deglise Le Devoir In Riverside Park, in Grants Pass, encampments are built and disappear to the rhythm of police interventions which, every three days, force the homeless to change locations.

The small town in Oregon also has a sad legacy of repression and intolerance targeting African-Americans, over-represented in homelessness in the United States. It was one of the fertile cradles of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, which then had several hundred active members. This group of white supremacists even experienced a resurgence in the 1980s and 1990s, paving the way for the rise of the Oath Keepers, a group of radical identity nationalists in the pay of Trumpism and who have been regularly talked about since then.

“I completely understand that we don't have enough shelters in Grants Pass,” Ms. Bristol added on Oregon Public Radio, OPR, last April. “Homeless people need to be able to sleep and exist somewhere. But if we evict them from private spaces and public spaces, it ultimately makes it illegal to be homeless. » The City of Grants Pass says it is actively seeking solutions to get out of this crisis.

A major challenge

“The repression against people living on the street and their imprisonment can make it more difficult to return to stability and even escape from homelessness,” says sociologist Claire Herbert, professor at the University of Oregon.

“Grants Pass presents the Supreme Court [of the United States] with a major issue: whether municipalities are authorized to issue traffic tickets and jail sentences for people who sleep outside when there are no beds available in shelters, this will force the homeless to move to cities where no such bans exist. » Migration which would be counterproductive, according to several experts met by Le Devoir, since it removes homeless people from their community of origin and their fabric social, we further reduce their chances of getting off the street.

“Such a decision by the Supreme Court would also allow cities to avoid assuming their responsibilities in the face of housing problems in their community, by dumping the problem of homelessness on their neighbors,” continues Ms. Herbert.

Grants Pass, the small Oregon town at the heart of debates on homelessness in the United States

Photo: Fabien Deglise Le Devoir In 2022, a federal appeals court forced the municipality of Grants Pass to suspend enforcement of a bylaw criminalizing homelessness due to a lack of available accommodation for the homeless.

“What we call a homeless crisis is in fact a governance crisis,” adds Tony Sparks, specialist in the geography of homelessness, contacted by Le Devoirat San Francisco State University. “In the United States, the rules of inclusion and exclusion in property and housing are legislative creations that fall within the purview of policy makers. Wherever affordable housing is not considered a basic human right, homelessness is widespread. »

A fatality which, a few days ago, stopped in front of Laura Jutowsky's tent, in a park in Grants Pass, after the Mint organization helped her get her hands on a package of federal aid to which she was entitled after the death of her husband in 2021, but which she had never claimed. The 45-year-old started camping in city parks after her car broke down 10 months ago.

“I'm going to go to lunch first,” she said after opening, between joy and tears, the envelopes received and discovering the amount of several of the checks that volunteers from the community organization came to bring her this day. May morning. “And then, I’m going to buy a plane ticket to see my children and grandchildren in Arizona. But, above all, I am going to buy a mobile home so that I can finally be at home. »

This report was financed with the support of the Transat-Le Devoir~60 International Journalism Fund ~i>.

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116