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Sweep Evicts Greenway Campers (Again), But Are There Better Solutions?

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Just as last week’s winter storm was about to blast into southern Oregon, police in Medford were conducting an overnight sweep of the Bear Creek Greenway.

The bike path and greenbelt that snakes along the floor of the Rogue Valley is an inviting refuge for homeless campers. Police cited more than two dozen people for illegal camping and cleared their camps, forcing them to seek other shelter.

In this two-part series, JPR looks at the problem of homeless campers and some of the creative approaches being used in Northwest cities.

It’s Thursday, the day before the greenway sweep. Word is out on the street that the cops will be coming through overnight, evicting campers. At the St. Vincent DePaul free lunch in Medford, a homeless camper who calls himself Steve eats his cheese and broccoli pie and commiserates with the people he knows will be rousted tonight.

Steve: “If there’s nobody there when they come through they take everything and you’re left out and you have to start all over again. And it does suck, it really sucks.”

Steve says where he’s camped he’s not in the path of the sweep. But he says that for people with little to call their own, having it confiscated is traumatic.

Steve: “The fact of the thing, that their property, their belongings have been taken away, that’s what’s really stressful on most people.”

This is the seventh greenway sweep this year, according to Medford Police Lt. Curtis Whipple. In 2014, officers issued 130 citations for prohibited camping. That could mean a $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail. Whipple says the sweeps perform a necessary public health function.

Curtis Whipple: “When they’re living down there, the trash collects down there. Oftentimes they’re within a few yards of Bear Creek. And we’ve had numerous times where we’d have large piles of human waste that are down in the area.”

Other users of the greenway often fear that illegal campers pose a threat of theft or violence. Whipple says the police typically advise campers in the greenway 24 hours in advance that they have to leave. The next day, starting at about 2 a.m., officers begin their sweep …

Curtis Whipple: “And usually, the largest dumpster they’ve got -- which is I think a 30-yard dumpster – we rent one of those, we come through with a  cleanup crew and any of the items and the trash left down there, we clean up.”

Campers are cited and given a card listing social service contacts. Anything they can’t carry away is confiscated. Police are required by law to store the belongings of evicted campers for 30 days so they can be reclaimed. Whipple says officers do that with anything of value. He says mostly, though, grody sleeping bags and muddy tents go in the dumpster.

Leigh Madsen says, in his experience, that’s the default option.

Leigh Madsen: “If it’s considered trash or if it’s too filthy to handle, then the police can discard it … In the past, everything that the police touch is filthy and it gets thrown away.”

Madsen heads the Ashland Community Resource Center, a non-profit that helps the homeless. He says it’s easy for people with a roof over their heads to underestimate the impact of the sweeps on people sleeping outside.

Leigh Madsen: “Imagine that somebody comes into your home and they take everything that you have and they throw it into a dumpster and then they push your home to the ground and you’re standing there on the street and you have no recourse whatsoever.”

Madsen says the sweeps can deprive homeless people of personal keepsakes, medication or important documents they need to get veterans benefits and other assistance.

Still, Madsen and other advocates for the homeless recognize having people living in tents in public spaces is untenable. Keeping a residential campsite clean in the absence of sanitation facilities is hard for anyone. And homeless campers sometimes have emotional, mental health or substance abuse issues that make it almost impossible.

But, where can these people go?

Local governments in the Northwest are trying some innovative, sometimes startling approaches, with promising results. 

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.