MEDFORD, Ore. — A coalition of local advocates is taking aim at a new camping ordinance under consideration by the City of Medford, one that could have long-term consequences for the local homeless population.
Medford City Council began looking for a revised camping ordinance in February — attempting to carve out a path to enforce prohibitions against camping along the Bear Creek Greenway and other public sites without running afoul of several relevant court decisions and two bills making their way through the Oregon legislature.
According to the City's initial proposal, sleeping would be prohibited in these areas during fire season and violations would be classified as a misdemeanor "as opposed to simply delivering monetary citations." Tent camping — beyond just temporarily sleeping — would be prohibited on public property year-round, with a similar misdemeanor penalty.
Despite assurances from Medford's legal counsel that the "City is not taking an enforcement-only approach to homelessness," a newly-formed organization of local advocates is sounding the alarm about the proposal. The Housing Justice Alliance has launched an online petition urging the City Council to reject the ordinance and work with community groups to address the root causes of homelessness.
“People lost their jobs during the pandemic, and wildfires destroyed over 2,000 homes last fall,” said Reverend Murray Richmond of the First Presbyterian Church in Medford. “Throwing people in jail because they can’t find a place to rent – when there are very few places available – is going to hurt more people. Fining people who don't have any money is just a waste of time.”
The group pointed out that Medford's proposed ordinance would make sleeping in a tent illegal even during the winter months, with penalties of up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine for the misdemeanor violation.
“We know unhoused people ready to take legal action,” said Nick Murphy, another member of the Housing Justice Alliance. “But I hope it doesn’t come to that. While we’re fighting in the courts, people will be dying in the streets.”
In 2018, a homeless woman filed a class action suit against the City of Grants Pass for its prohibitions against sleeping. A judge ruled in her favor, though the City has appealed. This case, Blake v. Grants Pass, is one that Medford has tried to work around — in part, by considering the year-round ban on tent camping, but carving out a space for sleeping during all but the summer months.
The Housing Justice Alliance referenced a letter that they say Christine-Marie Caligiuri recently wrote to the City. Caligiuri, the group said, lost her housing last year and has been living in a tent along the Greenway in Medford.
“We are everyday people, just like you – but sadly, not in a home,” Caligiuri wrote. “Please don’t make it more difficult to survive out here."
The Medford City Council is expected to vote on the ordinance in early April. In the meantime, the Housing Justice Alliance says that it is working with homeless people who would be impacted by the change to gather testimonies.