Many church parking lots in Medford soon will have permission to offer car camping for homeless people.
The Medford City Council unanimously approved an ordinance Thursday allowing churches to request a free permit from the city to have up to three vehicles in their parking lots each night.
“This is a step toward combating homelessness in the community,” said Councilor Eric Stark.
Currently it is illegal to sleep in a vehicle overnight on the streets of Medford, though it is a common sight, particularly in the downtown area. Other cities, including Ashland, have wrestled with similar ordinances.
Some local churches that want to allow homeless people in their parking lots supported the council decision but weren’t sure they could meet the requirements of a 20-foot setback from each vehicle and a bathroom and trash container on site throughout the night. The setback was requested by fire officials because of the danger of fire spreading from one vehicle to the next.
“We don’t have enough space in our parking lot,” said the Rev. Murray Richmond of First Presbyterian Church in downtown Medford.
He said providing a bathroom, even a portable toilet, would be difficult.
Richmond told the council that homeless people who have vehicles most often have found themselves in a rough patch in their life, and living out of their car is their only option.
“They are relatively stable people,” he said. “They’re hanging on by the skin of their teeth.”
The ordinance doesn’t allow tents or other structures to be erected around vehicles and requires that the vehicles must be operable and leave the parking lot each day.
Chad McComas, executive director of Rogue Retreat, encouraged the council to go slow on the ordinance, though he applauded the effort to help the homeless.
“It’s an epidemic, and it’s everywhere,” he said.
McComas said he probably won’t seek a permit to allow car camping at his church, Set Free Christian Fellowship, which offers food, clothing and showers for the homeless. He said it might be difficult for a church to monitor the vehicles at night.
“What happens when we violate the ordinance?” he asked. “I’m not sure we’re ready for this.”
But councilors indicated they’d been approached by local churches interested in providing a place for the homeless to stay at night in their cars.
Councilor Kay Brooks, who had been homeless herself, said she thought the ordinance was a small step in the right direction.
“It’s probably not perfect in its current incarnation,” she said.
The ordinance will help families that are struggling find a relatively safe and warmer place to stay, rather than on the street, Brooks said.
The Rev. Laura Lee Kent at Medford Congregational United Church of Christ applauded the passage of the ordinance.
“We are certainly going to seriously explore it,” she said. “My church wants to do something for the homeless.”
Richelle Kellen, a 59-year-old Medford woman, said her family was living out of a vehicle just a few months ago in San Jose, California, after their apartment building caught fire.
“You are always one step away from being homeless,” she said. “We just had nowhere to go.”
Kellen, who was getting help at Set Free Christian Fellowship Friday, said car camping at least gives a family the option of having a roof over its head, because the alternative of living on the street is far worse.
“It’s not really safe,” she said. “Everybody needs shelter.”
John Winfrey, a 69-year-old Shady Cove man also at Set Free, said he spent a summer several years ago living out of his car.
“It wasn’t too awfully bad,” he said. “I found a way to get comfortable sleeping in the passenger seat.”
He said he’s found a place he can afford in Shady Cove.
“If I ever have to go back to living in my car again, which I hope not, I’d be glad to stay in a parking lot in a church,” Winfrey said.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.