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Ashland Is Getting An Urban Campground. Grants Pass Could Be Next.

The Urban Campground shelter in Medford is operated by the non-profit Rogue Retreat.
Rogue Retreat
The city of Ashland is opening an urban campground, which will mirror this existing one in Medford.

Ashland is soon opening an urban campground for unsheltered people. Homeless advocates say this is part of a trend of smaller communities welcoming alternative shelters.

The city of Ashland got a $300,000 grant to open an urban campground by June. It’ll provide a place where unhoused people can sleep in tents and have access to restrooms and showers as they seek more stable housing.

The Medford-based nonprofit Rogue Retreat will manage the camp and help people connect with resources they need. It’s been running a similar urban campground in Medford since last year.

Matthew Vorderstrasse of Rogue Retreat says this new camp in Ashland has gotten little pushback from local residents.

“It’s kind of a breath of fresh air to go from everybody not wanting us anywhere near them to, ‘OK, we’re going to try this,’” Vorderstrasse says. “It’s just nice to see other communities wanting to replicate it.”

The city of Medford and Rogue Retreat opened an urban campground in July last year with about 25 spaces. Several local businesses and residents voiced their opposition at public meetings, saying that they feared the camp would generate litter and crime. Those complaints have petered out over time.

The Medford camp has since grown to 75 spaces. Vordertrasse says 300 people have stayed there and almost 40 percent have been able to find more permanent housing.

Rogue Retreat is bringing additional alternative shelters to Grants Pass. It’s working with city staff to potentially open an urban campground there, and it’s preparing to break ground on a tiny house village. The project — called Foundry Village — has been in the works for more than a year. It mirrors Rogue Retreat’s Hope Village in Medford. It also initially received pushback from city officials and residents.

Ashland Mayor Julie Akins says local opinions on how to best address homelessness are changing partly because of the economic downturn brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

“A couple of years ago, an urban campground in Ashland would have been absolutely not welcome,” Akins says. “People have seen through the pandemic that economies can turn very rapidly and can leave people behind.”

The Almeda Fire has also played a role. The wildfire destroyed 2,600 homes in Jackson County in September. Six months later, hundreds of people are still struggling to find housing. The fire burned through the county’s Bear Creek Greenway, an 18-mile multi-use pathway tucked into a mass of blackberry thickets and trees. Police agencies have reported that more than 150 unsheltered people sleep in the greenway and that their campfires pose a fire risk.

“We are aware now more than ever that leaving people unhoused outside is not a safe thing to do,” Akins says.

The $300,000 grant for Ashland’s campground is from state CARES Act funds earmarked for non-congregate homeless shelters. City staff haven’t decided where it will be located.

Vorderstrasse says it’ll likely offer about 45 spaces, including 10 Pallet shelters — small, inexpensive shelters that are easy to assemble. In order to stay at the camp, people will need a referral from a housing nonprofit or law enforcement agencies.

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