Candidates discuss ways to aid homeless

Medford's perennial problem with homelessness is weighing on the minds of candidates running for City Council in the Nov. 2 election.

All four contenders expressed compassion for the plight of the homeless but also pointed to the difficulty of dealing with a problem that has periodically vexed residents.

Problems with the homeless have erupted on the Bear Creek Greenway over the years, in conflicts at city parks and with unwanted panhandling. Merchants in the downtown area would like to get a better handle on the homeless problem to help spruce up Bear Creek.

One potential solution that has popped up is creating a cleaning station where the homeless could bathe, wash their clothes and make themselves presentable.

Council candidates include Karen Blair, who is challenging incumbent Ben Truwe in Ward 2, and Curt Ankerberg, who is facing off against incumbent Al Densmore in Ward 1.

Blair said Hawthorne Park was the city's "fancy park" when she was a kid. Now, she said many residents, herself included, would be reluctant to walk through it by themselves.

"The swimming pool doesn't get used that much," she said. "Maybe it's because there are so many homeless around."

She sometimes walks under the Fourth Street bridge, describing it as a "creepy" experience.

Even though the problem seems apparent for Blair, finding a solution can be thorny because of civil rights concerns.

"Panhandling is an ongoing situation that we haven't got a grip on," she said. "You can patrol the Greenway, but you can't have officers down there all the time."

Shelters are available, but not all homeless people avail themselves of such services, she said.

"It's a very difficult issue with the economy and everything — we have more and more homeless," she said.

As the city revitalizes the downtown, Blair said it is important to address the issue.

"We can't afford to let the whole situation continue," she said.

Truwe, a historian and Blair's opponent, said homelessness has been a problem in the Rogue Valley since the first settlers arrived.

"It's always been with us," he said. "Unless we do something proactive, nothing will change."

In early times, transients could find a place to camp for the night without running afoul of property rights or laws regarding staying overnight on public lands.

Now, he said, "If you're not paying for a roof over your head, there is no legal place to be. If you don't have a home and there is no room in a shelter, where can you go?"

Truwe said he would like to explore creating some kind of facility that would allow homeless people to bathe and wash their clothes.

"If they were better dressed, it might be more palatable," he said.

Instead of just wanting the homeless to go away, Truwe would rather see the community have a real discussion about the issue.

Ankerberg said he's encouraged at seeing more patrol cars cruising up and down the Greenway, but ultimately he thinks the homeless problem is complex. Even the types of homeless people are not the same.

"It makes me sad to know that there are that many homeless kids," he said.

Many homeless people have drug or alcohol problems, and Ankerberg says dealing with that is a state issue that has been affected by budget cuts.

He did support Truwe's idea of a cleaning station, saying there are old packing houses that could be converted with some sweat equity into shower stalls and washing facilities. In addition, such a station could help some homeless people who are trying to get back on their feet.

"If you're down on your luck, how do you get back in the mainstream?" he said. "Where do you get mail, or how do you get a job without a phone? How do you take a bath in order to get a job interview?"

Ankerberg said he's fairly confident he could find a property owner who might donate property to the city that could support such a facility.

"I don't think the city of Medford is doing enough," he said.

Densmore, Ankerberg's opponent, said the homeless problem appears to be getting worse as the state cuts back on services.

He said one solution to easing the problem in the downtown is to create activities that would bring people downtown, making the homeless feel less welcome.

The Commons project and other ventures by business will bring more people to the area and would create a more vibrant downtown, he said.

Densmore disagreed with Blair's contention that the homeless in Hawthorne Park scare people from using the pool. He said the pool and the facilities are just in worse shape than those at Jackson Elementary, which also has a nearby population of young people who frequent the pool.

Densmore said the city could seek grants to build a facility for the homeless, but finding the money and the organization to operate it on an ongoing basis might prove difficult.

Portland has tried various methods to deal with the homeless that have not always been successful, he said.

But Densmore said it is important for Medford to try different options.

"Only when the community takes a real interest do things get done," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail

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