A suspension of illegal camping enforcement that lasted exactly one day following a federal appellate court’s ruling for homeless rights sparked an outcry of frustration from locals facing the brunt of Medford’s transient problems.
Prompted by a Tuesday 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that determined cities can’t prosecute people for sleeping on streets, several locals made impassioned pleas Thursday night at Medford’s City Council meeting, asking the council and city staff to stem what the residents see as a growing homeless problem.
At least three locals unloaded on the council deep frustrations with crime along the Bear Creek Greenway and drugs at city parks, asking the city not to heed the court ruling against the city of Boise, Idaho, that said its prohibited camping ordinance violated the Eighth Amendment barring cruel and unusual punishment.
City Attorney Lori Cooper said her office requested Medford police suspend prohibited camping for one day before determining that citing for camping as a “non-criminal violation” is allowed.
“The way we handle prohibited camping does not violate the 9th Circuit’s holding,” Cooper said at the meeting.
The city’s code previously had given police the option of citing camping as a violation or misdemeanor, but owing to jail overcrowding, illegal camping was rarely treated as a crime before the ruling.
“Nobody stays in jail for getting a prohibited camping ticket, basically,” Cooper said, adding that typically other crimes are involved that do merit jail, such as trespassing or drinking in public.
“Folks are being cited and there’s no fear that people camping illegally are getting away with it,” Cooper said.
The city attorney’s advisory had limited effect on Medford police’s monthly Greenway sweep, which occurred early Thursday morning as scheduled, according to Medford police Lt. Mike Budreau.
The sweeps have occurred on the first Thursday of the month for more than a decade, though Budreau said officers didn’t cite for prohibited camping as the City Attorney’s Office instructed them. Police, however, were able to take “enforcement action” on 23 individuals late Wednesday night and early Thursday morning, including six warrant arrests and nine probation or parole violations, among other drug and sex offender violations.
That same evening, Medford police arrested two men on reckless burning and drug charges after they allegedly started a cooking fire that got out of control near Target along the Greenway. Both men had been smoking methamphetamine, according to police.
Although residents at the City Council primarily expressed concern that the ruling was tying police’s hands, they also asked the council for more action on what they described as a growing problem along the Greenway.
Jason Williams, who said he lives near Midway and Table Rock roads, said the property crime in his neighborhood at night is reaching the point where people are getting “brave enough to check front doors.” Williams said he believes it could lead to a home invasion robbery. He and others in his neighborhood are starting a neighborhood watch to combat the issue before pressing the council to do more.
Sarah James, who lives on South Holly Street, told the council that burglars threw a cinder block through her sliding glass door and ransacked her house after her family packed for a camping trip.
“They spent the weekend in my house,” James said, describing more than $60,000 worth of property taken. Items reported stolen included seven firearms, her grandparents’ military insignia, medications, Social Security cards and her family’s birth certificates. “They took the shampoo and conditioner out of my shower,” James said.
The burglars slept in her bed and left her with an “astronomical” energy bill after the burglars cranked up her air conditioning during a heat wave.
“It was a huge — huge violation,” James said.
Within a week, a team of Medford detectives gathered three suspects in the burglary case, who allegedly confessed, she said.
James told the council she’d recently had an encounter with suspects in the burglary case while she was loading her youngest child into her car to pick her kids up from school.
“The main guy and his girlfriend walked in front of my house, stepped into my yard, pulled a pear off my tree, smiled and continued walking,” James said.
The transient is living in a car she can see from her driveway, she said, adding she’s frustrated that police can’t remove them.
“I don’t feel comfortable,” James said. “They know that they’ve disarmed my home. I’m a victim of a crime that they’ve committed against me.”
Medford City Councilor Clay Bearnson said that as a resident in a nearby neighborhood and a downtown business owner, he’s “in the same boat as you,” describing transients using his business’ restrooms, and an instance when he was punched by a bicyclist high on methamphetamine. Bearnson said he doesn’t believe police did so much as cite the suspect.
Bearnson said he supports the city funding more shelters and upward mobility programs that would ease people out of homelessness.
An emotional Councilor Kevin Stine said he understood the mentality to march in and have the council “fix it.”
“So I get it, you come in here and say, ‘Let’s fix it,’” Stine said through tears. “I wish we could.”
Stine said Medford police are in the midst of hiring new officers especially for the Greenway.
“We’re doing what we can, and we wish it was enough,” Stine said.
Councilor Tim D’Alessandro said the council isn’t turning a “blind eye,” saying the city is part of a Continuum of Care coalition partnering with nearby cities and the county to fund and address underlying issues contributing to homelessness.
“There is almost not a meeting where this discussion doesn’t happen in some shape or form,” D’Alessandro said. “It is a slow process, it will not happen overnight, but it is being addressed.”
City Manager Brian Sjothun said a recent Medford police ride-along showed him the aftermath of decades of de-funding mental health resources, and he described the issues related to homelessness as a “nationwide epidemic.”
“Medford is not a Mecca of homelessness,” Sjothun said. “It is everywhere.”
Councilor Michael Zarosinski touched on the phrase “homelessness isn’t a crime,” countering that “breaking into a home and terrorizing a family certainly is.”
Zarosinski said Medford police do a “great job of enforcement,” but the underlying issue is there’s no place to put offenders after they’re arrested because of the county’s overcrowded jail.
Budreau, one of two who oversee the department’s patrol operations, agreed.
“If we had a bigger jail we’d have a much bigger impact on the crime in the valley — that I have no doubt,” Budreau said.
Touching on an adage that 10 percent of the population is responsible for 90 percent of crime, Budreau said he believes “that’s pretty accurate,” but said he believes in the Medford area closer to 1 percent of the population is responsible for 99 percent of crime.
“The ‘catch and release’ is real and it doesn’t provide much of a deterrent,” Budreau said.