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Groups propose homeless campsite

Two organizations are spearheading plans to establish a permanent camp site in Jackson County for the homeless.

Advocates for the Jackson County Homeless Task Force are teaming up with Rogue Retreat, a nonprofit organization that runs a housing program for the homeless in Jackson County, to fill what they say is a gaping hole between emergency short-term shelter — and illegally camping in city park space — and long waiting periods for transitional and low-income housing.

Heather Everett, Rogue Retreat program director and chairwoman of the Jackson County Homeless Task Force, said the task force is eager to move forward with establishing a camp site that would accommodate up to 30 tent sites.

The site would be fenced and provide basic amenities such as a cooking area, laundry and showers. Organizers behind the project have researched existing homeless camps in Eugene and other cities and say the idea fills a desperate need.

In addition to the tent concept, called "Haven Park," the group hopes to establish a "tiny house" model dubbed "Hope Village."

"Most emergency shelters cost a lot to run per bed per person," Everett said. "A campsite concept averages $3 per person a night. The problem with most of our emergency shelters and even transitional housing and permanent supportive housing, like Rogue Retreat, is we all have eligibility requirements that not everybody can meet just yet. And we all have waiting lists."

Everett said her group was working with government officials in Medford, Central Point and Jackson County to identify possible camp sites and to evaluate how to work within existing zoning or to create a permanent zoning specification for such a project.

"We don't want to just duct tape the existing codes," she said. "We want to create new ones, if we need to, in order to support this model going forward." 

Debi McComas, secretary and homeless ministry leader at Set Free Christian Fellowship, says she has lost track of the number of homeless people who have exceeded limits to stay at residential shelters or don't meet criteria for other options.

McComas said at least one local resident camped on the Greenway, enduring multiple police sweeps while attending Rogue Community College, and only recently was approved for an apartment.

Almost weekly, she said, women in abusive situations but not eligible for emergency shelter ask where they're supposed to sleep.

"People come into our church office daily and ask what they're supposed to do," McComas said. "They're moved from place to place and told, 'You can't stay here,' but they're not told where they can go.

"There are people who are not quite 30 days clean or who are trying to escape an abusive situation and they don't meet shelter criteria. But they still need a place to sleep."

Chad McComas, Rogue Retreat executive director and the pastor of Set Free Christian Fellowship, said the group was ready to create a homeless camp almost as soon as permission could be granted and a site provided.

"This would be a very humane way to allow people to have a place to live. It's no secret that there is a large gap between emergency temporary shelter and apartments," he said.

Chad McComas said the group had found a shed builder who could create the tiny house model, a concept largely discussed on social media, for $4,000 per unit. Tiny houses in homeless communities like Opportunity Village in Portland are essentially detached bedrooms, with no utilities or running water. Activities like cooking and showering and technology occur in shared facilities.

"The ideal situation would be to have both models," he said. "If someone has no place to go, we could get them out to Haven Park and give them a place to take care of themselves and start to rebuild their lives. Then we would move them up to a tiny house."

Central Point City Councilor Bruce Dingler, who said his city had been presented with the project idea, applauded the group's efforts to serve the community's most needy. In recent years, the city has grappled with issues related to a warming station opened by a local church. The facility attracted homeless from surrounding cities and complaints from neighboring property owners.

"We have plenty of places for homeless people to eat, but what do they do at night?" Dingler asked. "There are very few beds around the valley, so this camp idea would be an opportunity to relieve some of the overnight camping on the (Greenway). They sweep our area periodically and run people out. I feel sorry for them.

"I know some people do choose that lifestyle, but I can't imagine too many of them actually do choose it."

Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer said while the county has not been formally presented with requests for either the camp or "tiny house" model, he was supportive of long-term solutions for addressing homelessness.

"Obviously there's a homeless issue, and there are problems and consequences that certainly need to be dealt with," Dyer said. "I know there is definitely a gap. There's also a certain transient population that is difficult to do a whole lot of permanent solutions for, but there are a lot more folks who live here in the county for whom stable housing is one of the hurdles they face before moving on from whatever situation they might be in.

"It's like Maslow's hierarchy. Basic needs have to be met before someone can move from a tough situation into being a more productive member of our community."

For information on the project, call the Jackson County Homeless Task Force at 541-499-0880 or see http://rogueretreat.org.

Everett said donations toward development of the site and the "tiny house" models could be made through a donation link on the organization's website.

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at buffyp76@yahoo.com.