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'Tent City' Sets Up In Medford Public Park Following Wildfires

April Ehrlich / JPR News
In September, unsheltered people set up dozens of tents in Hawthorne Park in Medford as a form of protest against "clean sweeps" by city police.

A collection of tents has popped up in a public park in Medford after the Almeda Fire destroyed more than 2,000 homes in Southern Oregon

Hawthorne Park has long been a place where unsheltered people pass time during the day, but they didn’t set up tents because they feared getting ticketed by Medford police.

The Almeda Fire has changed that. People have set up dozens of tents in the park, along with a canopy with shelves full of food.

A few people at the camp are evacuees who’ve been displaced by the fire, but most were unsheltered before the fire. Campers say the city needs to provide adequate indoor shelter for people who need a respite from unhealthy, smoky air.

“We’re trying to show that the houseless community and its allies are here,” says Tray Colter, who is camping here. “Simple as that. All we want to show is that we have lives, too.”

Colter says this camp is a form of protest against the police department’s practice of clearing homeless camps. The camp is self-policed by volunteers.

City officials established a legal campground earlier this year as a response to the pandemic. Since the Almeda Fire, they’ve added additional sites to the campground, bringing it up to 35 sites. Still, there were an estimated 250 people camping along the Bear Creek Greenway before the fire destroyed thousands of homes in the towns of Talent and Phoenix last week.

Medford police and the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department had suspended“clean sweeps” along the greenway this spring in light of economic hardships that followed the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Since establishing a city-sanctioned campground in July, however, police have resumed clearing camps that they consider to be abandoned.

Medford city councilors didn’t return a request for comment; except for Councilor Kevin Stine, who declined to comment.

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