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Greenway camp ban eyed

All camping or sleeping on the Bear Creek Greenway during the summer might be banned within Medford to help prevent another Almeda fire.

“It’s a grave concern,” said Eric Mitton, deputy city attorney. “This is something police and fire feel would be valuable during fire season.”

Medford City Council will review an ordinance Thursday that would make it a misdemeanor to sleep or camp anywhere along the greenway between May 1 to Sept. 30, or longer depending on whether a fire hazard exists. The time frame falls in line with other regulations governing when grasses should be mowed down to prevent the spread of fire.

The ordinance, which might take effect before fire season, would also apply to Larson Creek Greenway, Lazy Creek Greenway and Navigator’s Landing Greenway.

At the same time, people would still be allowed to sleep in city parks but wouldn’t be allowed to erect tents or other structures.

“This does not prohibit throwing down a bedroll and sleeping in a public park,” Mitton said.

But the city could still shut down a park if it deems there are health and safety issues that require cleaning up the grounds, he said.

Under the proposed ordinances, other areas would be off limits to camping, such as sports fields, playgrounds, under bridges, under the Interstate 5 viaduct, on railroad tracks or within 15 feet of railroad tracks. Many of these areas are popular camping areas for homeless people.

Last summer, homeless people displaced by the Almeda fire erected tents in Hawthorne Park, raising the ire of some local residents. The city temporarily shut the park down and cleaned it up.

Medford firefighters have responded to dozens of blazes along the greenway over the years — many started by campfires — and some of them have gotten out of control.

Emergency crews say they have had a difficult time evacuating people along the greenway during fires.

If the proposed ordinance passes, someone sleeping along the greenway could be subject to a fine of $1,000 or face up to one year in jail.

Mitton said the city’s main goal is to get the homeless people linked up with social service organizations.

The city has worked with Rogue Retreat over the past few years to increase the number of beds available in supervised facilities such as the urban campground, Hope Village and the Kelly Shelter.

Mitton said the city’s ordinance takes into account recent court cases that decriminalized outdoor sleeping.

On July 22, 2020, the U.S. District Court in Medford issued an opinion in Blake v. Grants Pass that found even noncriminal violations for sitting, lying, sleeping or keeping warm and dry could violate the Constitution.

The court found Grants Pass had a web of regulations that “punished” people for being involuntarily homeless.

Under the same opinion, the court found that a city may create time and place regulations for when someone must pack up their belongings.

Grants Pass has appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Mitton said there is legislation making its way through Salem that would allow people to sleep or keep warm but would also make provisions for time and place restrictions.

The proposed ordinance in Medford attempts to balance public safety with the rights of people who choose to sleep outdoors, Mitton said, while being mindful of recent court cases and potential legislation.

The proposed ordinance would not allow people to sleep in an area that obstructs sidewalks, private property or entrances.

Rich Hansen, who has worked with homeless people, including at St. Vincent de Paul, said, “Jackson County has had a growing homeless issue for some time, and the Almeda fire just put a torch to it. It’s grown considerably worse. People need to have someplace to live and sleep.”

He said there have been many efforts to help house homeless people, including recent efforts to buy motels.

“At the end of the day, you are never going to get all the homeless indoors for many reasons,” he said.

The fires have also reduced the amount of housing in the valley, exacerbating the homelessness problem, he said.

Hansen said he understands the desire to deal with homeless people on the greenway, but he worries a ban could just push the problem elsewhere.

“It’s sort of like a water balloon,” he said. “You push them out of the greenway, and they’re going to go someplace.”

Hansen, also with the Medford Parks and Recreation Commission, said he’s not sure about allowing overnight sleeping in Hawthorne Park, noting the city just invested considerable dollars in remodeling it a few years ago.

Hansen said the city is faced with a lot of difficult decisions as it attempts to come up with these new regulations.

“I don’t envy the position the City Council is put in on this issue,” he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @reporterdm.

Deputy Michael Hermant visits a homeless camp along the Bear Creek Greenway near U.S. Cellular Community Park . file photo