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Homelessness lawsuit filed against city of Medford

file photo Multiple homeless camps are set up along the Greenway near the Crater Lake Highway overpass in Medford.
file photo Hawthorne Park was the site of a tent city camp after the Almeda fire.

A local defense lawyer has followed through with his threat to file a lawsuit on behalf of homeless people in Medford, seeking to have a series of anti-camping ordinances be declared unconstitutional.

Justin Rosas is representing four homeless individuals but seeks class-action status for “all involuntarily homeless people living in Medford” in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court that accuses the city of enacting “a web of ordinances” that criminalize homelessness.

Rosas wants the federal court to declare unconstitutional two Medford municipal codes related to the downtown exclusion zone and an ordinance prohibiting tent camping, according to the lawsuit.

“The city of Medford, through its attorney, expressed that people would be allowed to sleep only with bedrolls during the wet, cold Southern Oregon winter,” Rosas states.

In response, Medford Deputy City Attorney Eric Mitton said that the Prohibited Camping Ordinance “has a number of exceptions for the general rule about tents.”

The ordinance passed by the council does not allow unregulated tent or car camping on public property, but the city code does list some forms of authorized camping, according to written statements from the city and Medford Municipal Code.

Examples in the Medford Municipal Code include when the City Manager declares a severe weather event, under city authorization during an emergency — such as the Rogue Retreat Urban Campground and a prior camping operation on Medford Urban Renewal Agency property — and houses of worship are allowed a limited number of vehicles to sleep overnight in their parking lots. (Clarified)

Rosas claims that homeless individuals Robert Bessy, Greg Killingsworth, Amber McNab and Andre Bilodeau have been subjected to “the city’s anti-camping ordinances, anti-sleeping ordinance, the exclusion zone and criminal trespass laws, as well as the city’s other policies and practices aimed at making homeless people uncomfortable and driving them out of town.”

The lawsuit describes Bessy as being involuntarily homeless for the past two years, Killingsworth as being involuntarily homeless for the past nine years, McNab as being unhoused in Medford for the past 10 years and Bilodeau as “unhoused intermittently for the last three to four years and living predominantly outdoors.”

Bessy, Rosas claims, has been ordered to “move along” repeatedly over the past two years, and Rosas states that “there is nowhere that he can legally sit or rest.”

Further, Rosas alleges that Bessy lost access to social services after a theft of services citation.

“Mr. Bessy was cited for theft of services by the Medford Police Department for charging his cellular telephone on an outlet attached to a telephone pole in the public library parking lot,” Rosas states. “That violation was used to exclude him from downtown.”

The lawsuit does not detail the time or date when the citation occurred, but one of 11 homeless individuals who provided a statement to Rosas and the pro bono Lawyers for Justice shared a similar story.

Burton Moreno, who has been homeless the past four years, claims he has been “harassed and followed around town.”

Moreno claims that two Medford officers not in uniform told him and a friend that they were banned from the downtown area near the library, where Moreno says he was attempting to access his Social Security information from the library’s Wi-Fi terminal.

“They said it was stealing if I used the public library Wi-Fi,” Moreno states. “They said if we didn’t move they would take me to jail.”

“How can using my phone to access Social Security be a crime?” Moreno adds.

Other unverified complaints of being mistreated by police include a statement from Jacqueline Elgin, who has been homeless for the past two decades. She claims that a police officer “popped out of the bushes and admitted he had been watching me” near Alba Park.

“He knocked over my beer and arrested me,” Elgin states. “Because of that arrest I missed a doctor’s appointment that day.”

Killingsworth, a plaintiff in the suit, states that he was displaced at least three times this year, according to Rosas, describing his client being removed from camps beneath the 10th and 12th Street bridges, and near a willow tree.

“In each of those sweeps, he lost many of his basic necessities and no longer has access to any items of familial or historic value like photographs, memories or mementos,” Rosas states.

Rosas alleges that Bilodeau was forced to move to the Bear Creek Greenway from downtown because of the exclusion zone, and has since been forced to move at least 10 times over the past “three to four years.”

“He reports it more difficult to hold down employment because if he has to leave camp without someone to watch his things, he loses everything he has and he has to start over completely again,” Rosas states.

Bilodeau and McNash each voiced reluctance to shelters operated by Rogue Retreat and the Medford Gospel Mission, with McNash describing “unclean living, bedbugs, being stuck in a building for long periods of time and not allowed to leave ... being forced to go to church, having to agree to searches, agreeing to allowing law enforcement or staff to look at telephones, etc.”

Rosas alleges that Rogue Retreat’s Urban Campground and Kelly Shelter don’t offer enough space to accommodate the needs of the city’s homeless population.

“There is not sufficient space for those who are unhoused to find shelter at the low-barrier shelters,” Rosas states. “The Rogue Retreat’s Urban Campground, which has 60 spaces, and the Kelly Shelter, which has 54 beds, is full and has a lengthy waitlist of more than 500 names.”

Rogue Retreat Executive Director Chad McComas acknowledged wait lists in an email, but said, “I don’t know where the 500 number comes from.”

“We have beds and sites open regularly, and we fill from those who have contacted us,” McComas stated. “Sometimes we have people who have contacted us for the shelter and/or Hope Village who we have no current contact information for.”

McComas described the Kelly Shelter as having a capacity of 64 beds, and said the Urban Campground currently has 75 sites.

The Urban Campground sites can either be a tent or a pallet structure, and each space can house up to two people. Further, McComas stated, the City Council “is wanting us to expand the campground so we can have up to 150 sites.”

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.

Clarification, May 20: Added statements from Medford Deputy City Attorney Eric Mitton about the Prohibited Camping Ordinance that claims there are “exceptions to the general rule of the ordinance, and that at other parts of the city code there are authorized camping exceptions.