A small storage van with a faded Salvation Army logo pulls into Hawthorne Park late Wednesday afternoon, and half a dozen volunteers begin setting up tables with food, soap and Bibles beneath the noisy Interstate 5 overpass running over Bear Creek.
A steady line of people of all ages, some on their own, others with families and dogs, quickly builds in front of the tables as the volunteers hand out bologna and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and oranges.
The Salvation Army has been providing the free food giveaway for people in need on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays since May. But the program is drawing criticism from city leaders, who believe it may be exacerbating the problem of homeless people loitering in Hawthorne Park.
At Tuesday's Parks and Recreation Commission meeting, Chairman Jerry MacLeod expressed concern at the effect homeless people are having on the park.
"People are supposedly not using Hawthorne Park because of all the homeless people there," he said.
Commissioner Rich Hansen questioned whether the food program was a draw for homeless at the park.
"I'm wondering if it's really bringing them," he said. "They're already there."
At an Aug. 4 City Council meeting, Councilman John Michaels called for staff to form recommendations and/or ordinances that would regulate food distribution in city parks. Michaels' motion passed 7-1, with only Councilman Bob Strosser voting against it.
"We're having a lot of people showing up at the parks and handing out sandwiches on a regular basis and it's really pulling in a lot of the wrong element," Michaels said at the council meeting.
Strosser said Wednesday he wasn't convinced the situation at Hawthorne was a real problem.
"I'm not sure we shouldn't be thanking the Salvation Army for what they are doing ... we can rationally work our way through this," he said.
Salvation Army spokeswoman Jackie Agee said the individuals who attend the food giveaway don't pose a danger to anyone.
"The people who we serve are always polite and grateful," she said. "We're not helping what people think of as a stereotypical homeless person. We're helping people in the community who are hungry."
Agee said the program is available to anyone seeking food. She also said 70 percent of the individuals the program serves are under 21.
"We understand what that fear is about," Agee said. "But we're not seeing that kind of homeless person."
At the council meeting, Medford Police Chief Tim George said he didn't believe the majority of those who used the food handout programs in the park were of the wrong element.
"There's always a small percentage of problems specifically with intoxicated individuals, or individuals suffering from other mental health disorders that are causing (problems)," he said.
Since May, a stabbing, a beating and a knife-throwing incident involving transients have occurred at the park.
Medford couple Don and Andy Cronk, who had parked at Hawthorne for a late Wednesday afternoon bike ride, said they didn't have any concerns about providing food to needy people in the park.
"Most of them are harmless," Don Cronk said.
Cronk added, however, that he felt that increased police presence in the area had improved safety.
Mel Rhodes, 55, who came to the food giveaway Wednesday, said he wasn't homeless but lived nearby. He said he used food programs from different organizations almost every day of the week.
"Only a few of these people are homeless," Rhodes said. "Food just gets so expensive right now, and not everyone has a job."
Erica Hulen, 19, and James Schutts, 24, said Wednesday was their first time using the Salvation Army's food service. They said they were homeless and on their way to the St. Vincent de Paul shelter in Medford. They didn't know how long they would be staying in Medford and might be moving on to Eugene, they said.
Schutts showed a printed list the two had been given showing locations of free food giveaways in the Medford area for every day of the week.
"We go to places for food when we need it, you know?" Schutts said. "It's there, we use it."
Mat Wolf is a reporting intern from the University of Oregon. Reach him at 541-776-4481 or by email at email@example.com.