Medford bans Greenway camping during fire season
Medford City Council passed a law Thursday banning any form of camping on the Bear Creek Greenway during fire season.
The ordinance, partially a reaction to the devastating Almeda fire last summer, prohibits camping along the Greenway in Medford from May 1 to Sept. 30, or longer depending on the fire season. Prescott Park is also off limits to campers during fire season.
“We had a fire, everyone knows it, that ripped through this community and changed it,” said Councilor Eric Stark.
Coincidentally, two small fires broke out on the Greenway Thursday.
People on both sides of the debate over the ban cried out for compassion for homeless people or compassion for residents, many of them elderly, who live in fear of fire or other bad behavior.
Thousands of emails were sent to the city opposing or supporting the ordinance. The council voted 6-2 for the ordinance.
Stark said the ordinance isn’t designed to address homelessness.
“It’s for fire safety and health,” he said.
The ordinance doesn’t apply to private property, but camping is now not permitted under bridges, near railroad tracks and on the Greenway during fire season.
In general camping is allowed on city sidewalks as long as a 36-inch-wide travel area is maintained and the camping doesn’t obstruct entryways or driveways.
The city will require belongings to be picked up during a 24-hour period.
Councilor Kevin Stine said he’s heard from elderly people living near the Greenway who are upset at behavior they’ve seen, as well as concerned over other safety issues.
“It’s not right to vote no and have these people continue to be victims,” Stine said, choking up at times during the council meeting.
He said many parents won’t take their children on the Greenway now because they don’t think it’s safe.
Stine said that Thursday, 15 camping spots were available at the urban campground.
He said he is disappointed that homeless people living on the Greenway decline to go to the urban campground or other available facilities.
“We can’t pretend that all these people will accept services,” he said.
Medford police Cpl. Randy Jewell, who is part of the city’s Livability Team, which patrols the Greenway, said many homeless people prefer living away from the urban campground or other facilities.
“They get to do what they want to do,” he said. “There’s no regulations. They don’t want to leave those locations. They’re happy where they are at.”
The city has had two homicides recently along the Greenway.
Medford police Chief Scott Clauson said the homicides show the difficulty in patrolling the Greenway and keeping it safe for all Medford residents.
“It has become a war zone in some areas, completely unregulated,” he said.
Clauson said that even with the ordinance in effect he likely wouldn’t have enough jail space available to arrest everyone camped illegally on the Greenway.
Instead, his officers would rely on social service organizations to help many of the homeless find shelter somewhere else.
Medford fire Chief Eric Thompson said that over the past three years, 621 fires have been reported along the Greenway, though it’s unclear how many were caused by homeless people.
He said the typical fire is human-caused, often by cooking fires, warming fires or illegal burns.
Some of the fires burn through toxic materials or propane canisters, posing a risk to firefighters and nearby residents.
The Greenway is hard to navigate for heavy fire equipment and emergency crews attempting to evacuate people.
“It’s a potentially hostile environment,” he said. “Our firefighters are not welcomed with open arms.”
Councilors Clay Bearnson and Sarah Spansail voted against the ordinance.
Bearnson said, “This ordinance is antithetical to any religion that believes in hope and compassion.”
He said the city has been heavy-handed in the past reacting to homeless issues, citing the closure of Hawthorne Park last summer, where homeless fire refugees set up a small tent city.
“I don’t like the image we have for this city,” Bearnson said.
Councilor Stark said the city has done a lot to address the homeless issue, citing the rapid approval of the urban campground, allowing Hope Village on a city lot and creation of a homeless hotel.
“I think we are taking the lead on housing,” he said. “It’s so disingenuous to say that any person on this council is not compassionate about the unhoused population and how to address this issue.”
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @reporterdm.