Homelessness dominates Medford council race in Ward 3
Three people have stepped up to challenge incumbent Medford City Councilor Kay Brooks for the seat from Ward 3, which covers the northwest area of town.
The ward has some of the poorer neighborhoods in the city, and all four candidates have varying views on issues such as homelessness, affordable housing and promoting economic vitality.
Running against Brooks are business owner Don Libby, Chad McComas, executive director of Rogue Retreat, and Chad Miller, a Jackson County sheriff deputy.
Brooks said public policy is a passion for her, and the issues facing Medford, such as homelessness, mental health, addiction, housing availability, urban renewal and the local economy, are all interconnected.
“Homelessness is wrapped up in the housing issue,” she said.
Brooks said there is an invisible homeless population that lives on couches, in hotels or in cars who are not as obvious as those living on the Bear Creek Greenway.
Brooks would like the city to take more steps to create a succession ladder of housing availability that would be more tailored to people’s needs.
At the beginning rung of this ladder would be shelters such as the urban campground, Hope Village or the Kelly Shelter.
The city is exploring buying up older hotels to convert into temporary housing. The Medford Urban Renewal Agency has bought a 3-acre parcel next to Les Schwab on Central Avenue that is envisioned for low-income apartments and would be built by a local nonprofit that would work with the city.
Affordable housing and workforce housing are also needed, along with housing for young families just starting out in life.
Brooks moved here more than eight years ago and rented a house north of downtown for $825 a month that went up to $965 before she bought the house.
“There needs to be housing entry points everywhere along the way for people,” she said.
With the Almeda fire, there will be an even greater need for housing for low-income families, she said.
In 2018, Brooks championed a construction excise tax that will provide money to encourage affordable housing and would help families come up with the down payment for a home.
She said she has voted against every fee increase that has come before the council.
Mental health and substance abuse, which are linked to homelessness, are another big issue for Brooks.
She said it’s become even more of an issue since Jackson County lost a contract with mental health providers.
The area is woefully lacking in locations that provide treatment for those suffering from extreme mental health problems.
“Two North and the Beckett Center aren’t enough,” she said.
The city needs to partner with the county and Rogue Valley Council of Government to leverage more state and federal dollars to create a better treatment network, Brooks said.
Tackling many of these issues requires a vibrant local economy by enticing businesses that need a skilled labor force such as plumbers and electricians.
The city needs to think of cradle-to-career opportunities so that young people don’t flee the area to find work, resulting in a brain drain, Brooks said.
“All these issues are really linked together,” she said.
Libby, who declined an interview and supplied a written statement, said he will never vote for a fee or tax increase if elected.
He said residents were misled about the new sports and pool complex into believing it wasn’t going to cost them anything.
“That was a lie,” he stated, adding third-party organizations backed by council members misled the voters. “All tax increases should go to the voter on election day.”
Libby said the homeless are on the street by choice, or lack the mental capacity to take care of themselves.
“The state needs mental institutions that can get these mentally challenged people the help they need,” Libby stated.
The city needs to clean out the Greenway, but he thinks the private sector is a better answer to patrolling the Greenway than police officers, said Libby, who owns a security firm.
As a business owner, Libby said he has better insights on how to grow the local economy and attract new business.
McComas said one of the biggest issues facing the city is homelessness and the lack of affordable housing.
“I just kind of feel like I’ve actually been doing something about it,” he said. “There is a lot of talk and very little action.”
McComas, through his work with Rogue Retreat, has been instrumental in creating Hope Village, the Kelly Shelter and an urban campground, all of which have taken homeless people off the street.
“The urban campground, we never could have done it without COVID,” he said.
He said the statewide shelter-in-place that resulted in more tents along the Greenway helped spur local officials to accept the idea of a managed campground.
McComas is a pastor at Set Free Christian Fellowship, which offers meals, showers and clothing for poor and homeless people.
McComas said he thinks he could help steer the city in a direction to make a serious impact on the homeless population.
“I feel the council sometimes turns in circles,” he said.
He did say he would have to abstain from voting on certain homeless-related issues if he were elected because it could be a conflict with his homeless work. Despite that, he said he could help lead discussions that would get the city headed down a better road to deal with homelessness.
McComas said Medford and other cities are going to have deal with the fallout from the fires, which destroyed much of the local affordable housing.
Floodplain issues and potential toxins in soil could limit the number of mobile home parks that are able to rebuild, he said.
McComas said this will affect seniors and the working poor, while potentially forcing them to move to other areas of the country.
It will also affect local businesses that rely on low-wage workers to open their doors.
“We’ll be in trouble with jobs,” he said. “Our jobs locally are already not paying for the housing we had.”
He said he knows of one elderly woman who moved to Oklahoma to live with her daughter after her home was destroyed.
McComas said he struggled himself to find a house that he could afford when he first moved to Medford, and the situation has only gotten worse.
He said the city needs to do a better job attracting industry to the area to provide the kind of jobs that pay well enough for the high cost of housing.
“The city has to get in there and fight to use property we haven’t used before or we won’t have affordable housing,” he said. “We can’t entice people to work here until you have a place for people to live.”
He said the city needs to get more flexible to allow accessory living spaces on properties, which could take in more seniors and the working poor.
“Our city leadership is going to have to work it out,” he said.
Miller, a newcomer to politics, said his background in law enforcement gives him a unique perspective on homelessness.
“There is the assumption that people living on the streets are there because they are mentally ill,” Miller said. “There’s a few, but they don’t make up 85% of the people who live on the Greenway.”
He said many of these people choose to live that way because they don’t want to abide by the regulations or laws of society.
“Some people just choose that lifestyle,” he said.
Miller, who works at the jail, said 95% of the people who are incarcerated have Oregon Trail Cards, indicating they receive public assistance.
He said he doesn’t think the solution to homelessness and drug use is necessarily to put people behind bars, particularly with a jail that often is at capacity.
Before COVID-19, he said, the jail had a policy of not releasing people during the night.
Instead it bused them to a location where they were offered various treatment options and shelter locations to help with their addictions.
“We wanted to put them in a track to get people out of this lifestyle,” he said.
Miller said Medford police and sheriff’s deputies should be getting the support of the community because they are on the front lines of the problems facing this area.
Housing is another issue that’s important to Miller, who grew up in the projects in Brooklyn and Atlanta.
He said he doesn’t like typical government housing because it can leave people living in an endless cycle of living hand to mouth.
In the long run, people need to feel invested in their housing and their community, he said.
“We want to make better government housing in Medford,” he said.
A key to helping people surmount poverty is creating good jobs in the city, Miller said.
“The city needs to be more friendly and inviting for new business to come in,” he said.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @reporterdm.