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Homeless Advocates Push Back On Proposed Medford Camping Law Changes

 A proposed change to a Medford ordinance would make it a misdemeanor crime use tents in public spaces. This camp was organized by activists in Hawthorne Park in September 2020.
A proposed change to a Medford ordinance would make it a misdemeanor crime use tents in public spaces. This camp was organized by activists in Hawthorne Park in September 2020.

At a recent virtual meeting of the Jackson County Homeless Task Force, Deputy City Attorney Eric Mitton explained why Medford is changing its ordinance that currently bans all unauthorized sleeping or camping on public property anywhere in the city.

"Leaving the status quo is not an option available to the city," he said. "The ordinance does need to change, it needs to be updated because of federal case law. The only question is how."

The “federal case law” Mitton referred to is a pair of court rulings on lawsuits known as Martin vs. Boise and Blake vs. Grants Pass. Simply put, the rulings mean municipalities can’t penalize people for sleeping outside, if there’s no indoor alternative available to them.

So, the Medford City Attorney’s office wants to replace the existing citywide ban with regulations that restrict public sleeping to certain times, places and ways the city believes will pass legal muster. In fact, Mitton said, the new ordinance would allow some outdoor sleeping that’s been illegal up till now, such as in public parks.

"This is actually the first time since at least 1988 that it’s been totally legal and an officer would have no reason to even approach an individual who’s sleeping on a park bench in the middle of the night, even during hours of park closure."

Homeless people would also be allowed to sleep on sidewalks, as long as they leave a 36-inch clearance for pedestrians to pass.

But the proposed law would continue the current ban on nearly all use of tents, and sleeping in vehicles. It would prohibit staying in one place for more than 24-hours and includes other restrictions that advocates for homeless people say will make the lives of already desperate people even harder.

Maig Tinnin told the Task Force the proposals are misguided.

"Calling this a prohibited camping ban is extremely frustrating, because people don’t see themselves as camping. They’re trying to survive. They’re trying to stay alive out there. And so, this isn’t about prohibiting camping. It’s about prohibiting survival."

Tinnin is a Medford resident who helps organize volunteer support programs for people living along the Bear Creek Greenway, a ribbon of forest and brambles that follows Bear Creek along the floor of the Rogue Valley. People with nowhere else to go tend to migrate to the relative privacy of the Greenway to set up camp.

Tinnin said the proposed law ignores how last fall’s wildfires worsened an already-acute lack of affordable housing in the area.

"We just lost thousands of buildings in the fires and we’ve got folks with money who can’t get into rental apartments. I don’t think it is genuine to say that there’s not been additional barriers created to transition folks into community-based housing. Like, the housing just isn’t there right now."

Medford does offer a variety of services for homeless people, from the Kelly residential shelter to the Hope Village tiny house cluster to the Urban Campground, which has supervised tent camping. But the facilities are usually at or near capacity, with often-lengthy wait lists

Travis Greiner lives in a tent on the Greenway. On the Zoom call with the Homeless Task Force, he said the proposed ban on using tents, in particular, would only make his situation worse.

"Just to live on the street is very, very stressful, and it ages you very, very quickly," he said. "But to have the worry of law enforcement as well coming in the middle of the night to say, ‘Well, you gotta go.’ It’s making me feel even that much more hopeless."

Opponents say taking a punitive approach won’t solve the problem of people living outdoors in public. Tristia Bauman is an attorney with the Washington D-C-based National Homelessness Law Center.

"Laws that punish universal and unavoidable conduct performed by unhoused people in public space are ineffective at reducing the number of people who live outside," she said. "In fact, they have the unintended consequence of entrenching homelessness. They make it more difficult to escape."

Bauman’s group led the landmark Boise lawsuit and was involved in the Grants Pass case, as well. She told the Homeless Task Force she believes the city risks putting itself in legal jeopardy, as well.

"Categorical bans on tents and vehicle shelters absent some declaration of an emergency or absent the ability to get into urban camping grounds that don’t yet exist, are vulnerable to challenge."

In fact, a group of local attorneys just announced they intend to sue Medford if the city council adopts the proposed changes to the ordinance, and unhoused people and activists have repeatedly demonstrated outside city buildings in opposition.

The Medford City Council is expected to vote on the measure at their meeting on Thursday evening.

Copyright 2021 Jefferson Public Radio