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Greenway camp cleanup progresses

FIle photoMedford police officers Jenny Newell and RJ Josephson log in activity at a homeless camp off the Greenway in north Medford.

A three-month effort to eradicate camping along the Bear Creek Greenway has gone slower than expected, but Medford police say they have made headway.

“It’s a monumental task,” said Medford police Chief Scott Clauson. “I’d like to have a little better progress.”

Since May 3, after the ban on camping during fire season took effect, 96 camps have been removed along with 505 cubic yards of trash.

Twenty of those campsites were abandoned, so officers have removed 76 active camps.

Clauson estimates that 60% to 70% of camps have been removed, particularly in criminal hot spots such as near Railroad Park where residents have complained about homeless camps.

“That was definitely a hotbed of criminal activity,” he said. “We were able to remove tents and get the mowers in there.”

Medford parks workers have cleared out vegetation to help limit the spread of fires once the campsites are cleared out.

Medford City Council placed a ban on camping along the Greenway in an effort to prevent another Almeda fire, which destroyed 2,500 residences last September.

Fire crews have already responded to multiple small fires along the Greenway this summer.

Medford fire reported 156 fire-related calls for service from May 1 to July 27, and 81 were on or near the Greenway.

The types of calls include Illegal burns, trash fires, warming fires and smoke investigations.

Last Tuesday, firefighters responded to what appeared to be a cooking fire along the Greenway near the north Medford exit.

A six-acre fire broke out July 23 along the Greenway near milepost 31, requiring multiple firefighting agencies to tamp the blaze and notify homes and businesses to get ready to evacuate.

“There were four along the Greenway that week, and it happens one was substantially larger than most of the fires we have down there,” said Fire Marshal Chase Browning.

In general, the Greenway requires significant public safety resources, Browning said.

He said the team effort along the Greenway appears to be going in the right direction.

“I have received comments from the general public that things are improving down there,” he said.

The effort to remove campsites requires manpower and coordination with social service agencies, parks and recreation, as well as a significant police presence. Police also don’t want to burden the jail, which already lacks capacity.

“We could walk from one end to the other end and arrest everybody,” Clauson said. “But we don’t want to overwhelm those services.”

Clauson estimates most of the campsites should be removed by the end of summer, noting that roughly 10 a week are being targeted.

The police have a Livability Team, made up of three officers, a sergeant and a data person, who oversee the Greenway and deal with the homeless camps.

The team works closely with OnTrack, La Clinica, Rogue Retreat and other organizations to find shelter, addiction treatment, mental health treatment and other services to help homeless people.

In a significant number of cases, homeless people have found friends or relatives to live with after they are warned to remove their campsites.

“They just needed the input to help them move along,” Clauson said. “It’s comfortable out there, and they have food brought to them.”

Clauson said officers will even bring down a pickup truck and transport a homeless person’s belongings to their next destination.

Officers post notices giving the campers 72 hours to move along.

Drugs, fights, vandalism and illegal campfires have confronted officers and the firefighters who respond to the Greenway.

Clauson said camping became worse after Oregon declared a stay-in-place order during the pandemic.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 8 Almeda fire, a makeshift homeless campground took shape in Hawthorne Park. City officials closed the park and removed the campsites, but many of the homeless people found other locations along the Greenway.

In the coming months, more shelter opportunities should open up for homeless residents.

Rogue Retreat, an organization dedicated to providing shelter for the homeless population, is expected to expand its urban campground at the north end of Medford. The campground expects to eventually double its current 75-person capacity.

Clauson said his officers will be directing their energy to removing campsites in the so-called “Paradise” area, a green belt just north of the south Medford interchange. Campsites are clearly visible from Interstate 5, though there are less than earlier this year.

Despite the slow progress, Clauson said he thinks the Greenway will be looking a lot better by this time next year with far fewer campsites.

“I’m optimistic,” he said. “I don’t think it will ever get this bad.”

Reach freelance writer Damian Mann at dmannnews@gmail.com.