MEDFORD, Ore. — After a second reading during a special session on Friday, Medford's city council voted to approve a controversial new prohibited camping ordinance that would prohibit sleeping in a tent on public property year-round.
“Camping along the Bear Creek Greenway is posing a significant health and safety risk for individuals living along and near the Greenway. We’ve had two homicides occur along the Greenway in the past month, two fires just yesterday and an overall increase in calls for service for both fire and police related activity. Environmental degradation occurring due to the impact of people living on the Greenway is also a growing concern,” said Council president Tim D’Alessandro during Friday’s meeting.
A majority of the city council voted to approve the ordinance during a meeting on Thursday night, but proposed ordinances must go to a second reading unless the vote is unanimous.
On Friday, five city council members in attendance voted in favor of the ordinance. Only one, Sarah Spansail, voted against. The ordinance passed.
“We cannot solve mental health issues, drug dependency issues and physical health issues without first having shelter for people," Spansail said Thursday night. “Unfortunately this proposal doesn't provide housing and it eliminates the one form of shelter that hundreds of residents have.”
The ordinance broadly bans tent camping citywide and during all months of the year. Sleeping on public property (without a tent) is not prohibited — except between May 1 and September 30 of every year on the city Greenways or in Prescott Park.
Sleeping is also banned in a number of other areas; on playgrounds or sports fields during hours of closure, under roadways or bridges that are not open to the public, on or near railroad tracks, on streets or medians, and in the middle of sidewalks.
Those who do sleep on permitted public property must pack up their bedding materials and other belongings within 24 hours
Under the ordinance, law enforcement officials are required to post a notice 24 hours in advance and notify social services agencies before clearing an area. The notice is not required if law enforcement believes that the camp is the site of illegal activity, in the event of an emergency, or if the camp is in one of the areas banned during fire season.
The ordinance will become effective as soon as it is signed by Mayor Randy Sparacino. However, city officials indicated on Friday that enforcement would involve a gradual ramp-up, beginning with a resource fair at Hawthorne Park on April 9. The resource fair will also include access to COVID-19 vaccines for the homeless, provided by La Clinica. Medford's Livability Team will be doing stepped-up outreach ahead of enforcement.
May 1 is likely to represent a turning point, as it will mark the beginning of prohibited sleeping on the Greenways and in Prescott Park due to the increased risk of fire.
A group called Lawyers for Justice, led by local attorney Justin Rosas, held a press conference in Alba Park on Thursday — threatening to file a lawsuit against the City of Medford over its policies surrounding treatment of the homeless, up to and including the proposed ordinance.
Much of the contention over issue boils down to a fundamental disagreement between city officials who supported the ordinance and opponents like Rosas. Council members insisted that relatively low barrier shelters — like Rogue Retreat's urban campground and the Kelly Shelter — have room on a daily basis for people to sleep.
Rosas contends that Medford lacks enough low-barrier shelter options, and that many of the people who currently occupy the Greenway will have nowhere to go, except for the Jackson County Jail, when they are inevitably found in violation of the ordinance.
"Nobody would believe that this problem that we all see is going to be fixed with a jail bed, and there are not going to be one to two thousand people held in jail at one time," Rosas said during Thursday's press conference. "So this hammer that is being used to deal with a problem that will take a lot of sensitive attention and effort is totally inappropriate, inhumane, and unconstitutional."
D'Alessandro said that he has accompanied the Livability Team on an outreach mission, encountering a mix of misunderstandings among the homeless about those shelter options and the level of restrictions that they impose — some of them amounting to conspiracy theories.
One concern raised by opponents of the ordinance is that it bans tent camping all year, including during the wettest and coldest months. Council member Kevin Stine indicated that the City would be considering further ordinances to make exceptions on the tent camping ban during certain times and in certain places.
Rogue Retreat and the City are in talks to double to size of the urban campground on Biddle to at least partially account for people displaced from the Greenway.
“We have to look at it as to getting people more help. It's not about closing down the Greenway, although that's part of it, but it's about getting more help.” said Chad McComas, executive director of Rogue Retreat.