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Camping crackdown begins

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Multiple homeless camps are set up Monday along the Bear Creek Greenway near the Crater Lake Highway overpass in Medford.
Medford police are slowly ramping up enforcement of a camping ban that started along the Bear Creek Greenway May 1.

On Monday, the Medford police Livability Team posted signs near Crater Lake Ford warning people at seven campsites that they have 72 hours to move out. The team will ramp up its efforts in the coming weeks to warn campers and post more signs to clear out illegal campers from the entire Greenway in Medford.

“I’m confident after this initial week we will get better and faster,” said Medford police Chief Scott Clauson.

On Thursday, officers will give homeless people who have been warned one last chance to move on or face arrest.

He said that for the last three weeks officers with the Livability Team have been notifying the occupants of approximately 100 campsites along the Greenway to get ready to move.

“We’re trying to get folks into the Urban Campground or the Kelly Shelter,” Clauson said. “The bottom line is there are people who are going to refuse services.”

He said there will likely be cleanup work taking place in the Railroad Park area Thursday.

In April, Medford City Council approved an ordinance that 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. The ordinance is partially a reaction to the devastating Almeda fire last September.

Some homeless people contacted by police have shown interest in joining one of the organized shelter operations, while others don’t want to go to an organized shelter.

Clauson said many local residents assumed police would do a sweep through the Greenway because of the camping ban, but he said he doesn’t want to overwhelm the jail, social services or other organizations that deal with the homeless.

While camping along the Greenway is a misdemeanor crime, Clauson said it will be up to a judge to determine whether jail time or a fine are warranted for offenders.

The Greenway near Railroad Park was picked as the first location to enforce the ban because of worries expressed by a senior citizen residential complex about the dangers of fire from campers.

“It kept me up during the night last summer,” Clauson said.

On Monday, the fire marshal went with officers to help identify areas of concern as fire season begins.

While a lawsuit threat was made after the City Council approved the Greenway camping ban, Clauson said he hasn’t seen any court filings yet.

He said he believes the city is on solid legal ground with the ban.

Federal court rulings on homeless camping allow cities to enact ordinances that have time, place and manner regulations regarding where someone can bed down for the night.

Clauson estimated that up to 35% of the homeless people along the Greenway are from out of town, particularly from California, Eugene or Portland.

Tents are visible through Medford on both sides of Interstate 5, but many of them are abandoned and will be removed in the coming weeks, Clauson said.

Cleanup work will continue on a weekly basis over the next few months, he said. In the past, prior to COVID-19, the city performed sweeps on a monthly basis.

In the near future, the Livability Team will focus on the so-called “Paradise” area near the south edge of town on the east side of the freeway where there are dozens of campsites.

The Urban Campground, which has 75 tents and tiny houses off Biddle Road near Crater Lake Ford, is attempting to double in size this summer.

Clauson said the increased capacity should be able to handle the influx of homeless people from the Greenway.

Chad McComas, executive director of Rogue Retreat, said negotiations are underway to double the size of the Urban Campground.

He said there have been relatively few problems at the campground, though sometimes it has been necessary to exclude someone who has behavioral issues.

Still, the campground attempts to get homeless residents lined up with mental health and other social services.

Many of the residents look out for each other, and generally the campground has relatively few behavioral problems.

“It’s gone better than I ever imagined,” McComas said.

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