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Bear Creek Greenway problems spike during pandemic

An effort to clean up the Bear Creek Greenway through Medford has lost ground as police face increasing issues with disorderly conduct, vandalism, trash, transient camps and combative behavior from some homeless people.

Medford police Chief Scott Clauson said officers have been confronted by homeless people who exhibit a sense of entitlement to be on the greenway and areas surrounding Bear Creek because of the shelter-in-place order from the state during the pandemic.

“There are some folks in parks and the greenway who feel very emboldened,” he said. “They are being antagonistic to those trying to help them and to officers. That is a new change in behavior.”

Officers will still arrest people on the greenway for violent offenses, but Clauson said officers are avoiding arrests for lesser offenses because of the risk of bringing someone into jail and spreading COVID-19 to other inmates or deputies.

“They know we’re not going to take any action against them,” he said. “We just don’t want to expose the jail to any coronavirus. The risk is too high to introduce a virus.”

Clauson said it will take weeks of work by crews to remove all the trash along Bear Creek.

Vandalism has also been a problem, undermining efforts to make the greenway safer.

A hand-washing station next to the foot bridge near Ninth Street was vandalized, prompting its removal, along with one at Hawthorne Park. The stations were installed to offer a way for homeless people to wash themselves to help stop the spread of the virus.

“Somebody took a sledgehammer to it and destroyed it,” Clauson said.

A recently installed $4,000 solar light pole that was designed to make the greenway safer at night was tipped over and destroyed, with someone making off with the solar panel.

Clauson said there have been attempts to burn the portable bathrooms that have been placed temporarily along the greenway.

The city had made considerable headway cleaning up trash along the greenway, Clauson said. But in the month since the shelter-in-place order was instituted, weeks worth of garbage has accumulated and will have to be removed.

Clauson said there are more homeless people wandering around the downtown as well, but they have exhibited fewer behavior problems than those on the greenway. A hand-washing station in Alba Park hasn’t been vandalized and will remain there.

One of the reasons homeless people are more visible is that social service organizations have had to sharply curtail outreach programs.

Normally, officers will remove homeless people and issue a citation for illegal camping along the greenway, while attempting to get them connected with local social service organizations. Law enforcement, local organizations and agencies periodically conduct sweeps to remove illegal campsites and trash. At the same time, efforts are made to get people help so they can get off the street.

Efforts to remove illegal camps from the greenway had been paying off. Last September, there were 145 active camps and by March that had dropped to 98.

Now police think the number of camps has doubled since the shelter-in-place order.

“It’s definitely set us back as far as the progress we’re making,” said Sgt. Geoff Kirkpatrick, who is part of the Medford police Community Engagement Division.

Just a short distance north of the Little League fields off Alba Drive, Kirkpatrick showed an area next to Bear Creek that had been cleaned out by Medford crews. The area was even largely cleared of blackberry bushes.

Now, it was filled with at least 10 campsites and loads of trash. Some of the trash finds its way into the creek, where it eventually flows into the Rogue River.

“It’s going to take a lot of people and a lot of time to clean it up,” Kirkpatrick said.

Some of the campsites were relatively clean, and a few homeless people had collected their garbage in plastic bags.

“A lot of them carry out the trash,” he said.

When the Mail Tribune went out to see the campsites, one woman began yelling at Kirkpatrick, who was wearing a body camera, because she didn’t want any photos or videos taken.

Kirkpatrick said the city has a phased plan to enforce the illegal camping ordinance once the stay-in-place order is removed.

While police have seen a change in behavior among some homeless people, the city of Medford and other organizations have been helping provide meals along the greenway because of the shelter-in-place order and because many of the food pantries have been shut down.

Rogue Retreat continues to operate the Kelly Shelter in downtown Medford and Hope Village in west Medford, which both offer temporary accommodations for homeless people.

Kirkpatrick said police working with Rogue Retreat and other organizations had been engaged in a concerted effort to help get people off the streets and receive the mental health and other services.

Chad McComas, executive director of Rogue Retreat, said the increasing number of homeless on the streets is a reflection of how social service organizations have restricted their operations.

“Right now with this crisis there are more homeless people wandering around in the downtown than ever before,” he said.

A Friday food and outreach program at Set Free Christian Fellowship on West Main Street has been shut down, though access to a shower facility is still available.

Operation Clean Sweep, a Rogue Retreat and city of Medford initiative to enlist the help of homeless volunteers, is still cleaning up the downtown.

Matthew Vorderstrasse, development director for Rogue Retreat, said the cleanup crews are able to practice social distancing and wear masks for protection while they pick up trash in the downtown area.

Staff at Rogue Retreat say there appears to be a difference in the types of homeless who hang out on the greenway versus those in the downtown, Vorderstrasse said.

“On the greenway, you will encounter more people who want to be hidden and are more of the party crowd,” he said.

Going forward, Rogue Retreat and other organizations need to figure out how to conduct better outreach with the homeless community during times of social distancing.

“It’s definitely glitched everything,” he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

Medford Police Sgt. Geoff Kirkpatrick walks through a homeless camp near the north end of the Alba Little League Fields in Medford.{ }Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune