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Police As Social Workers: Critics Question Officers' Role In Addressing Homelessness

Jackson County Sheriff's deputies walk through a years-old encampment hidden near the Bear Creek Greenway outside Medford, an elaborate set of structures that deputies call "the Hobbit House."
April Ehrlich
JPR News
During their patrol of the Bear Creek Greenway, Jackson County Sheriff's deputies walk through a years-old encampment that deputies call "the Hobbit House."

Police officers often deal with cases involving drug addiction, mental illness, and homelessness. These often require skills that are more like social work than law enforcement. But is using police the best way to deal with social issues such as homelessness in Jackson County?

On a Thursday morning in early June, ATVs help Jackson County Sheriff’s deputies maneuver around massive blackberry thickets during their morning patrol of the 18-mile Bear Creek Greenway outside Medford, a sort of urban forest that has become home for many people who have nowhere else to go.

The deputies stop on a dirt trail to find Whitney Stinson, who is living in a hidden camp he built near the greenway.

“Mind if we come into your camp?” Deputy Noah Strohmeyer asks. He’s part of a grant-funded team that regularly patrols the greenway.

“Yeah,” Stinson replies. “Why do you want to look at my mess?”

It’s illegal to camp along this pathway, but since the coronavirus pandemic began, police and sheriff’s deputies in Jackson County have mostly stopped issuing tickets on public property here. They’ve instead focused on doing check-ins and connecting people with meals and other resources.

Stinson makes it clear that he’s not fond of the armed deputies. He sits on the ground with his head lowered, a large tattoo of a feather showing on his calf.

“I just don’t understand why you guys keep running to this spot, dude,” Stinson says, his voice rising. “You guys run up here, you run straight here to find me so you could tell me to get the f--- out.”

There are resources that could help him, they say. There are social service providers — including those working in drug addiction, housing, legal aid, and more. They offer to connect him with a tribe in Oklahoma, where he says he’s a tribal member. It sounds like a conversation they’ve had before.

“Man, just stop, dude, stop with your help, because your help doesn’t help me,” Stinson yells. “All it does is move me from here.”

Back on the trail, Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler reflects on the interaction. Stinson is "anti-law enforcement," he says. Stinson won’t accept help from them because he doesn’t want it. Deputies have told Stinson several times to go to a shelter — though most shelters in the area are full and have long waiting lists.

Three Jackson County Sheriff's deputies visit camps along the Bear Creek Greenway outside Medford on a weekly basis as part of their effort to address homelessness.
April Ehrlich / JPR News
JPR News
Three Jackson County Sheriff's deputies visit camps along the Bear Creek Greenway outside Medford on a weekly basis as part of their effort to address homelessness.

In recent weeks, a nationwide debate over police reform has questioned officers' roles in doing what is largely considered to be social work. Some reform advocates say the money spent on policing unsheltered people could be better spent on programs that address the underlying causes of homelessness — like by providing housing or other social services.

Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler disagrees. He says police departments are already underfunded, and officers are well-suited for this work because they’re trained in deescalating dangerous situations.

“Police officers get a lot of training,” Sickler says. “A lot of people say maybe this isn’t the best fit. I don’t think they really realize what goes on day-to-day with police officers and what their jobs are and what they actually do.”

While driving along the path, Sickler and his team run into officers with Medford Police Department's Livability Team, another group that focuses on homelessness along the greenway. At that moment they’re patrolling the city's portion of the greenway on bikes, although they also sometimes use ATVs to maneuver through the heavy brush.

Medford launched the Livability Team in September 2019, after city councilors approved a measure dedicating $1.2 million to fund four officers and a records specialist over a two-year period. On its website, the city writes that the team has helped people with housing applications, rent and security deposits, employment opportunities, and more.

But the officers have primarily acted as law enforcement. In the last eight months, officers have issued six times as many citations as they have provided housing or other assistance to people. They've connected 34 people to housing or shelter, and they've written almost 160 tickets for prohibited camping or trespassing.

For housing advocates, these numbers point to a bigger issue with police officers providing homeless services.

“They’re fundamentally not suited to be social workers,” says local advocate Derek DeForest, who has been monitoring police activity along the greenway in recent months.

DeForest is among a group of concerned residents in the valley who banded together to help unhoused people during the pandemic. He says while law enforcement agencies are helping facilitate ways to help people on the greenway — like providing handwashing stations, porta-potties and meals — so far, there have been problems.

“A lot of handwashing stations without water, porta-potties with no toilet paper,” DeForest says. “Unfortunately, there were a couple weeks where there was actually moldy food, sour meat that went out to folks.”

Police officers and deputies have promised not to clear people’s camps from the greenway during the pandemic, but they are still clearing camps that they consider to be abandoned. They’re also waking people up in the middle of the night and arresting them if they have any outstanding warrants.

However well-intentioned police may be, DeForest says, the very presence of armed officers with the power of arrest is intimidating.

“If somebody comes to your house at 3 a.m. and they arrest your roommate, and then you wake up a few hours later and they're bulldozing your neighbor's house — you're very frightened now,” DeForest says. “You are actually traumatized.”

Jackson County deputies walk through an empty camp.
April Ehrlich / JPR News
JPR News
Jackson County deputies walk through an empty camp.

Even during the nationwide crisis, Medford officers are still primarily focused on enforcing laws. They’ve issued fewer tickets along the greenway during the pandemic, but they’ve also banned more people from the downtown district in the month of May than they ever have in years past. That’s left many unsheltered people with the feeling that they’re being shepherded to the greenway to keep them out of sight. Police say that’s not the intention and that the increased bans are likely due to increased homelessness and patrols.

Police agencies have mostly allowed people to sleep along the greenway in recent months, but soon campers will be redirected to a new location. Medford police, as well as local officials and nonprofits, have been coordinating an effort to establish a city-sanctioned camping shelter in an industrial area of Medford, which will be managed by the housing nonprofit Rogue Retreat. Once it’s up and running, police say they plan on going back to ticketing and evicting campers along the greenway and throwing away any belongings left behind.

April Ehrlich is an editor and reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, she was a news host and reporter at Jefferson Public Radio.