Fears over spreading the coronavirus have forced some homeless shelters around the country to close or limit their capacity. In rural Southern Oregon, civic leaders told those in need to camp in the nearby woods. Now with wildfire season around the corner, law enforcement is relocating homeless people again.
That's what brings a grant-funded team of Jackson County sheriff's deputies down to the Bear Creek Greenway, an 18-mile strip of forest that runs through the city of Medford, Ore. It's illegal to camp here, but law enforcement groups have mostly stopped issuing tickets and clearing camps during the pandemic as part of the county's effort to keep unsheltered people in one place. They've instead focused their patrols on connecting people with meals and other resources.
"Whether it's mental health, whether it's housing opportunities," says Sheriff's Deputy Noah Strohmeyer. "It's getting them simple things like identification that they could use to go get housing, to get a job, things like that."
But not everyone here welcomes their assistance. Deputies meet Whitney Stinson at a large camp he built. Stinson sits with his head lowered as they tell him about local resources and an upcoming city-sanctioned camp site for unsheltered people.
"Man, just stop, dude, stop with your help, because your help doesn't help me," Stinson says, his voice rising. "All it does is move me from here."
Like Stinson, many people sleeping on the greenway have contentious relationships with law enforcement. After years of enduring camp sweeps and racking up expensive tickets for trespassing and prohibited camping, unsheltered people have become wary of any help that law enforcement has to offer.
"I've had them really be mean to me," says Wanda Garcia, who camps on the greenway. "Like, cuss at me. And push ya. It's not OK. I'm tired of it. I'm tired of being harassed."
In recent weeks, a nationwide debate over police reform has questioned officers' roles in doing what is largely considered to be social work. Law enforcement groups in Jackson County have organized efforts to bring resources to the greenway — including porta potties, handwashing stations and lunches. But so far, there have been problems: toilet paper isn't stocked, there's no water, and there've been reports of spoiled food being delivered.
"They're fundamentally not suited to be social workers," says Derek DeForest, a local advocate for unsheltered people.
DeForest is among a group of concerned Medford residents who banded together to help unsheltered people and monitor police activity during the pandemic. While law enforcement agencies have promised not to clear people's camps from the greenway during the pandemic, they're still clearing camps that they consider to be abandoned. They're also waking people up in the middle of the night and arresting them if they have any outstanding warrants.
"If somebody comes to your house at 3 a.m. and they arrest your roommate, and then you wake up a few hours later and they're bulldozing your neighbor's house — you're very frightened now," DeForest says. "You're actually traumatized."
Nearly 200 people are now sleeping in camps they've built among the massive blackberry thickets in the greenway. With this year's dry summer season, city officials are concerned that campers could start a catastrophic fire in the middle of the city. So they're planning to redirect people to a different outdoor site, one managed by a nonprofit. The problem is, that one can only accommodate 25 people. Nonetheless, once the new site is up and running, police say they plan on going back to ticketing and evicting campers along the greenway and throwing away any belongings left behind.
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