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Down and out downtown

People who violate city laws in downtown Medford could be banned from the town center under a proposal being considered by the City Council that would affect the growing homeless problem.

The council plans to take up the issue at a future meeting, but councilors aren't sure how well the idea will work or whether it will just push the homeless problem elsewhere.

"In my mind, it is a way to criminalize homelessness," Councilor Kevin Stine said. "I can understand wanting to do something, but this isn’t the right way."

He said a ban in the downtown might prevent a homeless person from going to Jackson County Health Services, the library and other buildings. And being homeless can often lead to getting a citation.

"Sleeping in a park is a violation," he said.

The idea is similar to the exclusion zones for city parks, where violators of local laws can be banned for up to 180 days.

Councilors recently asked city staff to come up with a recommendation on the exclusion zone idea at a future council meeting. Stine said he was the only councilor to vote against the proposal.

Councilor Clay Bearnson said people who think that society owes them a favor or that they are somehow above the law are mistaken.

"There's a fine line between an act of compassion and enabling," he said.

Downtown business owners have been concerned about the large presence of homeless people as well as drunken behavior, said Bearnson, who is a downtown business owner.

"This is something to try to help out the downtown business owners," he said. "Characterizing it as criminalizing homelessness is just rhetoric."

Bearnson said he doesn't think an exclusion zone will fix the problem, which he says will take a lot of work by the entire community to resolve.

Councilor Tim D'Alessandro, who supported more research into the idea of a downtown exclusion zone, said the homeless issue, as well as drunken behavior by patrons of local bars, has been a concern for local residents and businesses.

"The downtown area has been impacted," he said. "There are people coming out of the bars intoxicated who are using alleyways as restrooms."

D'Alessandro said he's hoping to find a way to hold people accountable for their actions, and he thinks an exclusion zone might be one possible way to address that concern.

"This gives the police more leverage so they're not dealing with the same people in the downtown," he said. "Businesses and residents have rights, too."

But D'Alessandro said he doesn't see a simple answer to addressing the problems downtown.

"This is not something City Hall is going to resolve on its own," he said. "It's going to take all of the community's help."

And whatever decision the city makes, D'Alessandro said, someone will not be happy about it.

Councilor Dick Gordon said that although he has asked city staff to come back with a proposal on an exclusion zone, he's not sure it will work.

Hawthorne Park used to be where homeless people congregated until the city spent money to improve it, he said. Now the problem has been pushed to Alba Park, across the street from City Hall.

If the city creates an exclusion zone, Gordon said, "Where are we moving them to?"

On Wednesday, dozens of homeless people gathered around the gazebo in Alba Park.

Homeless advocate Bobbie Holden said she thinks the city could do more to give homeless people a warm place to live rather than kick them out of parks and other areas of the city.

"These guys have nothing," said Holden, with Daystar Community Outreach. Holden used to provide food to homeless people in Hawthorne Park, but she has become homeless herself and is living out of a van with her husband.

She said the city needs to show more compassion and find a place where homeless people can stay on cold nights.

"We need a big building," Holden said. "There are plenty of people who want to run it."

Despite her own living situation, Holden said she offered to pay a large ticket and stay in jail for one homeless man, to whom she gave blankets.

Holden said a disabled man in a wheelchair died recently because he wasn't able to get inside the Kelly Warming Shelter in the basement of First United Methodist Church on West Main Street.

"We have people dying," she said. "This is genocide."

Heather Everett of Rogue Retreat, one of the organizers of the shelter, said the man had been hospitalized the night before because of infections and was unable to use his prosthetics to get downstairs to the shelter. He was not admitted because he had lice that would have infected others, she said. Several people stayed with him outside overnight. He died the following morning, despite the night watchman's attempts at CPR, she said.

— Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm. Reporter Nick Morgan contributed to this story.

Bobbie Holden, a homeless advocate in Medford who is recently homeless herself, says the city is not doing enough to care for its most vulnerable residents. [Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta]