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Messy business

CENTRAL POINT — A local square dance group says transients camping in the woods behind its Table Rock Road facility have damaged the building, set illegal fires and left a constant trail of trash.

Some of the camps behind the Rogue Valley Square Dance Center are so elaborate they have multiple "rooms" with metal bed frames, broken-down chairs and area rugs between ragged tents.

John Olson, assistant treasurer for the center, which is tucked between the Bear Creek Greenway, a freeway overpass and Interstate 5, said the square-dance group has tried to coexist peacefully with the campers for the past three years or more.

Olson pointed out more than a dozen of an estimated 25 to 30 campsites in the area Tuesday. The center has a meager budget and rents the hall to community groups to cover basic expenses, Olson said.

Renters have seen transients pulling up railroad ties to set fires, vandalizing the mechanical gate and showering naked, using the building's water faucet, Olson said.

The center had to spend $11,500 to replace an air conditioning unit that was vandalized "for $80 worth of copper" and several thousand dollars' worth of wiring was stolen from a workshop, he said.

"We put a fence up after that, but it's always only a matter of time before they rip us off again in some way," Olson said, noting that the problem seemed to increase after a large Greenway sweep by Medford police in August.

Olson said he "tried being nice" at first, allowing transients to use the center's water supply and leaving the gate open for access.

"We left the gate unlocked so they could get through to their camps. Then they started setting fires, and we had drug deals in the parking lot," he said.

"We have someone clean the hall once a week, and one of the homeless ladies wouldn't let her come in. She blocked the gate and yelled at her. She said, 'This is my place now, you can't come in here.' Then the lady — she's crazy — started wrapping see-through blue plastic all over the gate, like a cellophane. She decorated the gate."

Olson said the group has tried everything from posting no-trespassing signs, felling a tree to block pathways to the facility and filing complaints with the Jackson County Sheriff's Department. In July, one of the campers set at least one fire behind the hall.

"There were four suspicious (fires) right around here at the same time. While they were putting the one here out, another one started over by the overpass," Olson said.

Ken Wilkey, a camper with one of the tidier campsites, said messy campers bother him as much as they do property owners. Wilkey's camp had a clean hammock, rug and branches to disguise his living quarters.

"A lot of people camp quietly. I wouldn't live like that," Olson said, gesturing toward a campsite covered in bottles, blankets, bike parts and trash bags.

"I don't go around nowhere in here. I think that's wrong then they're nice and kind to let us be out here and just camp. Then their camp is dirty and they're throwing trash everywhere. It's nasty."

Jackson County Sheriff's Capt. Nate Sickler said that with all the issues the department handles during busy summers, transient camps are hard to keep at bay and are low on the priority list.

"It sounds like we're going to have to go down there and do another sweep. It's been nice and hot out, no rain. ... The problem is really hard to keep a handle on," Sickler said.

"Summer is our busiest time of year, with the highest call volume. We have people hiking who get lost, waterways in use, normal summer stuff. ... It's our most taxing time of year. It's a pretty significant event to organize a sweep. Police are so busy with calls for service."

Charlie Nathan, a local who was assessing the camps Tuesday, picked up a collection of usable items. Nathan said he lived in the woods several summers ago while trying to get his life together.

"Back when I felt I was the only person that knew about this area, I had some valuable possessions when I lost my home, so I hid them out here and they were safe," he said.

"The way people are living out here now is totally reckless. What it's going to take is people policing themselves, and there needs to be significant repercussions — natural consequences to deter them," he said.

"If it stays like this, some child is going to stick their hand on a needle and get infected with HIV or Hep-B. If you look at drug addicts who have homes to live in, their homes are the same filth-ridden mess."

Sickler agreed there needs to be a solution. But what that is, is anyone's guess.

"We're a transient's dream. You can go to the Ashland Plaza, camp on the Greenway and you can smoke weed. We've got nice weather, and it takes us 30 days to organize a cleanup," Sickler said.

"When you've got people breaking into homes and hurting each other and abusing children and elderly people and driving drunk and hitting people, where do you put your resources?"

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

John Olson points out homeless camps behind the Rogue Valley Square Dance Center in Central Point that are causing problems. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch