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Ordinance would criminalize homelessness

I am a regular volunteer at Hawthorne Park. When the Almeda fire swept through, people working with homeless communities saw a dramatic increase in need: Dozens of homeless folk who had lived along the Greenway were displaced from their routines, from access to services and from their belongings. The fires also created an influx of newly homeless folk — and with reports of FEMA denying over half of requests for disaster relief, we can expect those numbers to rise.

We are staring at a crisis in homelessness in the Rogue Valley: a hydra made of acute and long-term government negligence, devastating wildfire and a global pandemic. In the face of that, the city of Medford (joined in spirit and action by other cities along the corridor), have not risen to the moment, and instead are burying their heads in the sand, and worse, criminalizing the attempts of people to survive and criminalizing those who try to help them survive.

I started working at Hawthorne when the mutual aid encampment went up, spending a few spare hours sorting clothing donations and helping people find garments they were looking for: dry socks, a warmer coat, pants that weren’t torn, face masks. I brought new packages of socks and sleeping bags to give away, and tried to offer comfort to people in the midst of mental health crises.

I believe if passed, the proposed ordinance changes would criminalize volunteerism like mine, what my conscience tells me was the correct response to seeing people at risk and in need, and being in a relative position to help.

What the Medford Police Department did next was not help the encampment be safer or access more sanitation services, or get vulnerable people medical or mental health care, or provide them with a better long-term place to pitch their tent. Instead, they swept the camp, arresting volunteers for “trespassing” in a public park in the daytime, and arresting the people living there. They disrupted the flow of hot meals and community-led donations to our most vulnerable people, during a pandemic and in the aftermath of a terrible fire.

I read the proposed ordinance changes, and I see that it almost mockingly “allows” urban camping in some places, as long as that person is willing to sleep exposed to the elements (a situation we know can kill people or cost them limbs). I read these proposed changes and I see that the city has chosen to criminalize the individuals who are, for free and often using our own limited resources, doing the work that we might expect the city to do: feed and shelter our most vulnerable. The only purpose I can see for this new law is to make being homeless a death sentence, so that homeless people will be forced to leave Medford or risk dying.

This is what Medford chooses to do in the face of great suffering. If this were really about keeping the Greenway clear, then the simplest, most humane thing to do would be to provide an area where people can safely raise their tents, near basic needs like restrooms and running water. But really, the aim is to not have to address homelessness by making it a crime. Arresting people is simple, caring for a complex set of needs and risks is hard, and shelters are not a silver bullet. Medford is unwilling to do the difficult work of keeping vulnerable people from harm, and I think they are so ashamed that individual people rise up to do what they, with budgets and resources and even mandates, have failed to do, that they’ve even decided to criminalize the helpers in their war against the poor.

Emily Iles lives in Ashland.