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Police, service agencies plan 'urban campground' for unhoused sheltering on Greenway

Unhoused people living along the Bear Creek Greenway won’t be forced to move during an upcoming week of clean up, but local officials are proposing a much bigger relocation of people in the coming weeks.

“We really need to get in and start doing our normal cleanup,” said Medford police Chief Scott Clauson in an interview Friday evening. “I just think there is a sense of urgency since we have had people camped in place for nearly four months, and those areas have become very unsanitary and an environmental issue.”

Homeless people with whom law enforcement and aid agencies will connect throughout this week will hear about preliminary plans for a “temporary urban campground,” a place that officials say will offer more consolidated services and keep both people without homes and the Greenway itself safer than the current situation of sheltering in place along the Greenway during the COVID-19 pandemic.

No agency has made any official announcement about the idea of the temporary urban campground, but Furst confirmed that people living on the Greenway will be told about the plans being made throughout the week of cleanups.

“I don’t think anybody feels like this is the absolute long-term solution, but it ought to get us through a certain period of time,” said Dr. Jim Shames, medical director for Jackson County.

The campground, the location of which has not been decided yet, would offer multiple restrooms and sanitary services, Clauson said. Tents would be spaced 12 feet apart, according to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Clauson said the team is planning for one or multiple local nonprofits that offer services to homeless people to manage the camp, rather than the city.

“The city’s position is we don’t want to operate a homeless camp, but if we can provide the means and potential location for a nonprofit to do it, we’re supportive of that,” Clauson said.

Chad McComas, executive director of Rogue Retreat, which operates the year-round Kelly Shelter, said that while some plans are dependent on the property picked, certain services such as laundry and showers would need to be provided for the temporary camp to be tenable.

“We need to have oversight, there needs to be someone there all the time,” he said. “We need case management services so we can have people move on.”

Living at the camp would be voluntary, according to officials’ descriptions, but McComas noted that rules regarding conduct and addiction issues, for example, would also be necessary.

Officials with Medford police, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office and the City of Medford have consulted with Jackson County Public Health on the safety of plans, Shames said.

It was the Sheriff’s Office, he said, that “made it pretty clear that for fire danger reasons, for health reasons, they couldn’t maintain that kind of situation on the Greenway that’s been happening since the beginning of COVID-19.”

Camping along the 18.5-mile Greenway is illegal, but while stay-at-home orders from the Governor’s Office have remained in place as a protective measure to mitigate infection spread, law enforcement have allowed people to stay. The trash and human waste that have built up during that time are increasingly putting people at risk, officials said.

Vandalism and damage to property have also ticked up, police said, including a handwashing station that was destroyed near the bridge at Ninth Street.

During this next week, however, the crews with Medford police and the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office will focus on removing trash and clearing only abandoned camps, said Sgt. Steve Furst with Medford police.

A resource fair will run Monday morning from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at RailRoad Park to make information available about local services and resources to move people toward housing, employment, addiction treatment or other services. Workers with Jackson County Mental Health, Maslow Project, the Addictions Recovery Center, Veterans Affairs and Rogue Retreat will be present to answer questions and get people signed up for services.

“It’s another way for people to get the opportunity to take a hand up and get into a better situation,” Furst said.

A follow-up team of law enforcement, mental health specialists and other staff will walk the Greenway Monday night to connect with people who didn’t make it to the resource fair.

Clauson said the plan for the urban campground is to have those same services on site, in a more readily accessible manner than is possible when both people needing services and the nonprofits are distributed throughout the city.

“We would be able to consolidate all those services into one location, and provide better education for the homeless on the COVID issue,” he said.

McComas said that it’s long been a problem getting people off the Greenway when there aren’t other safe alternatives for them to go.

“We tell them they can’t be there, but we never tell them where they can be,” he said. “We’ve gotta find an answer.”

Clauson said it’s too early to know whether enforcement of camping violations would ramp up along the Greenway once the camp is established, to further incentivize people to seek shelter at the camp.

“I honestly cannot even say where we’re going to be a month from now as far as enforcement,” he said.

More information will likely become available as plans for a property are shored up.

“I would like to see ... some concrete plan within the next two to three weeks,” Clauson said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

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