Since the pandemic began, many group shelters for the homeless have closed due to concerns about spreading COVID-19. This has added to the hundreds of people that were already camping out along the Rogue Valley’s Bear Creek Greenway. Amid concerns about wildfires, officials in Medford have established the area’s first sanctioned urban campground. But it’s unclear how long it will last — or what might replace it.
Frank and Ambrea Schultz have been in the camp since it opened in late July. They were sitting in downtown Medford when two officers approached them and told them about the campground.
“We’ve heard about this place for a while. We were sitting downtown one day and a police officer rolled up and they signed us up.”
For the last few years, they’ve been traveling the West Coast. They recently got married and hope the next round of stimulus checks will help them save enough money to move to Washington soon. They agree that the best part about living at the site is not having to worry about getting fined for trespassing or public camping.
“It’s nice, but it’s the fact that you don’t have to worry about getting in trouble anymore,” Frank says.
Their tent is one of twenty-five in the campground. Five rows of small green tents are lined up under individual canopies. Some spots have lawn chairs or decorations on the outside and individual solar lanterns dispersed throughout the lot.
The wood-chip covered ground is about half the size of a football field, surrounded by an eight-foot chain-link fence covered in opaque black mesh. Four portapotties, two sinks and a 250-gallon water tank sit in the corner.
It’s modest and clean. Frank and Ambrea have already recommended the space to their friends.
“We know quite a few people in here,” Frank says. “They’re our buddies from the street that we decided they’d be better in here than out there. So we encouraged them to come and then they showed up.”
Many of the resources at the campground are donations from various community organizations, like a charging station to plug into phones that was donated by the city. Little Caesar’s also donates pizza seven days a week. Residents can sign up for a ride to a local Christian fellowship where they can take showers and do laundry.
“They have a bunch of people who come here throughout the week and help you do things like get your ID and birth certificate to getting a driver’s license,” Frank says. “Or, I don’t know, even getting out of here if you wanted.”
The city of Medford is using a federal coronavirus grant to fund the project, but it’s largely operated by the nonprofit shelter provider Rogue Retreat. To get a spot in the camp, residents have to receive a referral from the Medford Police Department’s Livability Team. That’s a group of police officers who do outreach with people experiencing homelessness. Mike Wulff is one of four officers in the Livability team.
He says the team members have developed relationships with most of the people living on the Greenway. At the bottom of the campground intake form, applicants are asked if there is a Livability team officer that they prefer to work with. “There’s some crossover, but that way Rogue Retreat can contact, for instance, me, if somebody has listed me here,” says Wulff.
The intake process for new residents is quick and easy. Frank and Ambrea got a tent and campsite the first day the shelter opened. Applicants agree to meet with a case manager and follow basic rules: no fighting, no weapons, no drugs or alcohol on the premises.
Matt Vorderstrasse is the development director at Rogue Retreat. He says he believes this space could change the sometimes punitive approach Medford has taken in dealing with homeless people.
“Ideally, what we want to also see is that this will leave a positive impression in the community’s mind so that the community remains flexible to doing these types of programs so that we can continue looking for solutions rather than trying to penalize being homeless,” Vorderstrasse says.
The camp is scheduled to close September 30, and at least right now, there are no plans for where the residents will go.
“We don’t own the land, so even if the council wanted to we’d have to come to an agreement with the property owner for this to keep going,” says Kevin Stine, a Medford city councilor. “We might decide to keep it going, have a financial stream and have an agreement with the property owner to keep it going, or we might have to look into what does happen if it does close on September 30.”
Stine says that he isn’t expecting the campground to be extended into the fall.
Vorderstrasse says that leaves campers with few good options, likely sending many of them back to the Greenway.
“Theoretically if the campground were to close, then we would try to leverage as many people that we can into the programs that we have space in,” he said. “But ultimately, there would be that segment of the community that has been receiving services at the campground that we’d have to send back into the world to stay wherever they were staying at. So a lot of them would probably end up back on the Greenway.”
The city and Rogue Retreat have under two months to come up with a plan for how to proceed.