Medford Police surprise homeless man with new wheelchair

MEDFORD, Ore. — On the streets of downtown Medford, you’ll find an unconventional friendship.

“He’s a great guy, very intelligent. He has a great story,” said Officer Jennifer Newell, Medford Police Department.

Soft-spoken, reserved, kind, are just some of the ways Officer Newell talks about her friend, Joe.

“He loves to laugh,” she said. “For us, that’s a big part of this. It may be that the person hasn’t smiled in… I don’t know how long.”

The 57-year-old has been homeless for 6 months.

He declined to be interviewed and asked us to keep his anonymity.

“He’s very humble,” said Officer Newell. “He doesn’t want help. He’s told us that other people deserve help more than he does.”

Newell is one of five officers in the Medford Police Department’s new “livability team” working to build relationships with people like Joe.

MPD hopes it can connect them with a variety of Medford organizations that help the homeless to better their lives.

“A lot of people that we encounter out here are in what we like to think of as a survival mode,” said Officer Newell. “And they’re more looking for where they’re going to get their next meal, where they’re going to lay their head that night.”

When she first met Joe, Officer Newell says the team worked to find him a roll-in shower, some new clothes, and get him enrolled in services like the Oregon Health Plan.

“Until we build that trust relationship with them, all we can assess them on is what we see with our eyes,” she said.

But Officer Newell says there was still one thing Joe desperately needed, although he’d never admit it.

“He, you know, lives in his wheelchair. He sleeps in his wheelchair, eats in his wheelchair, communicates from his wheelchair,” she said. “That’s his lifeline.”

Joe lost his leg in a motorcycle accident in the ’80s.

Officer Newell says he’s been using a badly-damaged wheelchair and struggling to get around.

“It looked like the spokes were broken on it,” she said. “The wheels weren’t turning. He had a pad on the wheelchair that wasn’t functioning correctly.”

After pulling some money from the livability team’s budget, Officer Newell says she knew what they had to do.

“I think he was shocked,” she said. “I don’t think he really thought that was possible.”

The team delivered Joe his new set of wheels in early November. The moment, Officer Newell says, is one she and the department won’t soon forget.

“The big smile on his face and the thank you from his raspy deep voice made everything worth it,” she said.

Although Officer Newell hopes to find Joe permanent housing, she knows this wheelchair will roll him one step closer.

“Our goal is to get people off the street and into housing, so any way we can help with that and make them comfortable in the meantime, that’s what we’re trying to do,” she said.

MPD isn’t doing the work alone.

The cushion for the new wheelchair was donated by Southern Oregon Medical Equipment. The roll-in shower was provided by Jackson County Mental Health.

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