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Church lots could be sanctuary from cold

Many homeless people sleep in vans or motor homes at night, but they often run into trouble with police or local residents because there are few legal parking options in Medford.

As a result, the City Council is exploring the possibility of allowing up to three vehicles a night in a church parking lot.

“If there was such a place, I would definitely be utilizing it — someplace where we can park and not worry about it, and not just the neighborhood watches and the police, but a lot of times there are individuals who come along and start wanting to make trouble and harassing people,” said Eddie Trujillo, 52, who lives out of his van.

Councilor Kevin Stine said a local resident approached the council Dec. 20 and asked if something could be done, specifically allowing those camping in their cars to stay the night at religious institutions.

“This potentially allows a safe place for people who are living in cars a place to go,” Stine said.

He said many of those living in cars have children and a job but don’t have the means to stay in a residence.

“From my perspective this is a good path forward for something we can do,” he said.

The council will hold a study session in February to discuss the issue, Stine said.

Danielle Stanford appealed to the council Dec. 20 to ask for emergency shelters during the cold months, including allowing up to three vehicles a night to stay at a religious organization.

On Jan. 2, Lori Cooper, Medford city attorney, sent City Manager Brian Sjothun a letter responding to Stanford’s concerns.

Cooper stated several cities in Oregon allow car camping in church parking lots, including Lincoln City, Portland, Eugene and Ashland.

Eugene allows up to six vehicles at designated properties, but the owners have to provide access to bathrooms and trash disposal.

Although car camping in church lots is allowed under state law, those cities adopted ordinances that allow regulated car camping at businesses, nonprofits and public agencies.

Another possibility is to declare a weather emergency to allow the use of facilities not normally used as temporary shelters. In Bend, if the temperature drops below 25 degrees, the city manager has the discretion to declare a weather emergency.

Under existing Medford laws, any organization can apply for a conditional use permit to operate a temporary shelter.

Churches that already operate under a conditional use permit can apply for a modification of the permit to allow cars.

Chad McComas, executive director of the homeless advocacy group Rogue Retreat, said, “Isn’t it cool that our city is even talking about this?”

While he embraces the idea, McComas said he would like to see the city design some kind of program or place that could house car camping or temporary shelters.

McComas’ organization already houses 200 homeless people a night, including at the Kelly Shelter and Hope Village.

He said there is no way for him to effectively handle three vehicles a night at Set Free Christian Fellowship, which already provides food, showers and other help for the homeless. On Monday, Set Free provided a place during the day for homeless people to stay warm.

McComas said he’s working on plans to expand the number of homeless people being housed during the winter.

“We have 200 people under a roof, and I want it to be 500,” he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @reporterdm.

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