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Federal lawsuit accuses Medford of policies that 'criminalize the existence of homeless people'

Earlier this week, attorney Justin Rosas followed through on his threat to sue the City of Medford for its ordinances and policies regarding the homeless.

Posted: May 20, 2021 3:34 PM

MEDFORD, Ore. — The City of Medford faces a class action lawsuit, filed in federal court, accusing officials of enacting a "web of ordinances, customs, policies and practices" that effectively criminalize homelessness within the city.

The class action lawsuit comes from Medford attorneys Justin Rosas and Justina Lara. Rosas had announced at the end of March that he would sue the City as officials worked on a new prohibited camping ordinance. The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court on May 18.

According to the suit, the City of Medford has tried to "run homeless people out of sight, out of view, out of town, or into jail" without providing adequate emergency shelters or affordable housing.

"Medford’s customs, policies and practices, as applied to involuntarily homeless individuals, violate the constitutional rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, to due process of law, and to equal protection of the laws, secured by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments," the suit alleges.

Named plaintiffs in the suit are four people who have been homeless in the Medford area for between two and ten years, and the lawsuit requests that they be considered representative of a class consisting of all involuntarily homeless people living in Medford.

Suits of this kind are not unheard-of, and some previous examples have succeeded in court. The City of Grants Pass lost a similar suit, Blake v. City of Grants Pass, less than a year ago. Perhaps more critical is Martin v. Boise, which the City of Medford has said was used to frame the new prohibited camping ordinance, and which also served as a precedent in the Grants Pass ruling.

Rosas' lawsuit asserts that low-barrier shelters in the city are woefully inadequate for the need, as police work to enforce the new camping ordinance by clearing out campsites along the Greenway. Rogue Retreat's urban campground and the Kelly Shelter — two low-barrier shelters in Medford — do not have enough openings to accommodate the displaced, the suit claims.

The issue of shelter space is one where City officials and advocates for the homeless have repeatedly disagreed. At the beginning of Greenway enforcement earlier this month, Medford officials said that multiple shelters "reported having one or more shelter spots available." The City has also approved an expansion of Rogue Retreat's urban campground.

"Even if all of the shelters were lower-barrier, there would not be nearly enough beds to shelter all of the homeless people in Medford. In total, there are generally 10-20 beds available (including the Medford Gospel Mission) and even those spaces are regularly filled to capacity," the lawsuit claims.

Ultimately, the suit urges the U.S. District Court to grant six requests — to certify the class, declare Medford's policies on the homeless unconstitutional, declare the camping ordinance and other related rules unconstitutional, issue an injunction banning the enforcement of those ordinances, award the plaintiffs costs and attorney fees, and award any other relief "as may be just and equitable."

NewsWatch 12 contacted the City of Medford for a response to the suit, and received the following statement from the City Attorney's Office:

"Because of the pending litigation, the City’s comments must be limited. That said, the City respectfully disagrees that its prohibited camping, civil exclusion, theft, or trespass ordinances are unlawful. The City previously explained the constitutionality of the City’s new prohibited camping ordinance in a letter to the National Homelessness Law Center, which is attached. The Jackson County Circuit Court has already found the City’s civil exclusion ordinance to be lawful; that order is also attached."

The civil complaint may be read in full here or below.

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