By DAMIAN MANN
Hawthorne Park has become a magnet for the down and out who line up for a popular food giveaway program, prompting Medford officials to consider moving the food program from park to park to stem the vagrancy problem that has plagued Hawthorne.
“Yes, we would like to encourage food distributions at locations other than Hawthorne Park,” said Rich Hansen, chairman of the Medford Parks and Recreation Commission.
Hansen said a different location for the food program will have to be found anyway for about six months if the Medford Urban Renewal Agency board approves a $1.7 million upgrade of Hawthorne Park.
Hansen said the city will wade into the idea cautiously while it attempts to reach out to the Salvation Army and other groups that might be offering food.
Problems connected with vagrancy, which has given Hawthorne a reputation for crime and bad behavior over the years, also have plagued nearby business owners.
Brenda Edwards, who owns a building on Hawthorne Street, said the vagrancy problem has escalated, and she finds beer bottles and drug paraphernalia strewn over the ground.
“Our building was vandalized twice last week,” she told the MURA board on Thursday. “Since the closure of the pool, the park has become overrun with undesirable elements.”
Brian Sjothun, Medford parks director, said, “It isn’t that we want to eliminate the distribution of food or goods or service that is currently happening in Hawthorne Park. We want, as part of this process, to look at distribution of those types of services throughout our park system so that it is not concentrated in one area.”
Sjothun said it hadn’t yet been determined which parks would be suitable for the food program nor whether The Commons or Alba Park would be considered as alternate sites.
Sjothun said he had contacted the Salvation Army to alert its officials that a potential policy change was being discussed.
Jackie Agee, director of the Salvation Army, said she was aware the city could possibly require a permit for the free food program, but she thought the idea of moving from park to park was only one idea that was being discussed.
“There has been discussion that they want all interested parties to get together,” she said.
Agee said the Salvation Army distributes sandwiches or hot dogs on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday at about 5 p.m.
“We see hungry people, and they come and get their food and go about their business,” she said.
The city is on the verge of completely renovating Hawthorne Park, and city officials are hoping the renovations will create a more family-friendly environment.
Plans call for better lighting, new walkways, a new playground, a splash pad, a small skate park, new restrooms and two new dog parks, one for small dogs, the other for large dogs.
Demolition of Hawthorne pool, closed in 2011, is scheduled for June. If the MURA board approves the renovation, the work could start in 2014.
Hansen said the Parks and Recreation Commission believes that more activities in the park and better lighting will reduce the number of vagrants.
On the other hand, he said, the food programs are a valuable service for the community.
“There are hungry people, and they need to be fed,” Hansen said. “Nobody wants to stop that kind of charitable activity. It’s a very touchy subject, and that’s why we want to proceed cautiously.”
He said the commission would look at other possible locations for the food programs in concert with the Salvation Army and other agencies.
“It’s an idea right now that needs to be worked on,” Hansen said.
Councilor Bob Strosser said the food program is a very sensitive issue for the city, and one that must be dealt with carefully.
He said he admires the work the Salvation Army undertakes in reaching out to the poor in this community. Any policy changes regarding the food program would require inclusion of the Salvation Army and other groups, Strosser said.
“I think the important thing is that we have to have communication,” he said. “There are no easy solutions to what is a very difficult issue.”
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.