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Yet another coronavirus consequence

Those cooped up at home, working remotely or, worse, not working, are still adjusting to the sacrifices necessary to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, looking hopefully ahead to the day when restrictions can begin to ease and life can slowly start returning to something approaching normal. Meanwhile, Medford police are having difficulty dealing with the homeless along the Greenway.

That community has been there all along, but the realities of the pandemic have changed the relationship, and not in a good way.

State directives ordering people to shelter in place, banning mass gatherings and closing non-essential workplaces posed a special challenge for coping with the homeless population. Trying to protect them from contracting the virus and subsequently spreading it meant easing up on policies that pushed illegal campers out of sites along Bear Creek, allowing them to shelter in place as best they could. That was the only realistic strategy, but it has resulted in some unfortunate consequences.

Police officials say that some homeless campers have become emboldened by the new policy, and criminal activity has increased, including vandalism, littering and combative behavior toward police. Officers can’t lock up people for relatively minor offenses for fear of introducing potentially infected people into the jail. Homeless people know this, and are less cooperative than in the past.

In addition, steps taken to help with sanitation have been met with vandalism. Hand-washing stations installed along the Greenway have been destroyed, and attempts made to set portable toilets on fire.

The number of camps has spiked, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing except that the volume of trash has increased dramatically as well. While some campers clean up after themselves, many do not.

Police are doing the best they can, but they are hampered by the fact that social service agencies that usually take referrals of people cited for illegal camping have curtailed their own activities.

Shelters are still operating, but they don’t have room for everyone. Some services have shut down, including a Friday food and outreach program at Set Free Christian Fellowship on West Main Street.

Police and social service workers and volunteers deserve our thanks for their efforts to cope with a problem for which there is no easy answer. One day, the coronavirus will recede. Unfortunately, the issue of homelessness will not.

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