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Camping ban just moves the problem

Banning people from camping on the Greenway during the summer might reduce the fire hazard, but it would complicate the issue of addressing homelessness in Medford and could cause more conflicts with users of city parks.

The City Council reviewed a proposed ordinance Thursday that would make it a misdemeanor to sleep or camp anywhere along the greenway from May 1 to Sept. 30. The ban would include greenway areas along Larson Creek, Lazy Creek and Navigator’s Landing, and would prohibit camping on sports fields, playgrounds, under bridges, under the Interstate 5 viaduct and on or near railroad tracks. Violators could face fines of up to $1,000 or a year in jail.

Fire and police officials are rightfully concerned about the risk of wildfire after last year’s devastating Almeda fire swept up Bear Creek, destroying thousands of homes. Firefighters have responded to numerous fires along the greenway over the years, many started by illegal campfires. But forcing people off the greenway could have consequences beyond limiting fire risk.

Fining people who have no money and are unlikely to show up in court anyway won’t accomplish much, and the county jail doesn’t have room to house people for illegal camping.

Deputy City Attorney Eric Mitton notes that nothing in the ordinance prohibits people from sleeping in city parks — as long as they don’t erect tents or establish campsites. That’s designed to keep the city in compliance with a federal court ruling last year that said Grants Pass regulations likely violated the Constitution by punishing people for being involuntarily homeless. The court said restrictions on time and place were permissible.

The city of Boise, Idaho, on Monday settled a federal lawsuit by agreeing to spend $1.3 million on efforts to prevent homelessness, including creating more shelter beds.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2018 that Boise could not make it illegal for people to sleep outside in public places if all beds in the city’s shelters were full. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the case.

Medford has worked with Rogue Retreat to create shelter beds in an urban campground, the indoor Kelly Shelter and the tiny-home development known as Hope Village. Still, there are more homeless people than there are beds available.

Telling people they may sleep in city parks may avoid city liability for criminalizing homelessness, but it’s not likely to sit well with park neighbors and users. And police will have to spend more time monitoring those sleeping in parks.

The only thing that will make a dent in the number of people without housing is more housing. Whenever and wherever a new project is proposed to provide shelter for those who lack it, the not-in-my-neighborhood objections quickly surface. That is not helpful, and contributes to pushing the problem around instead of fixing it.