JACKSON COUNTY, Ore. — More than 700 people experienced homelessness in Jackson County this year.
1 in 4 are considered chronically homeless that means they’ve been homeless for at least a year with a disabling condition like a chronic health problem, physical disability, or struggle with drugs or alcohol.
It’s an epidemic many say is growing and police tell us there’s no better place to look for it than the Bear Creek Greenway.
Sgt. Steve Furst of the Medford Police Department says many of the people they encounter are battling demons, whether it’s mental illness or drug addiction.
“If we don’t come out here and help them and build those relationships, then we’re not going to be able to get them the help they need,” said Sgt. Furst.
He says during every sweep, they hand out referrals for drug, alcohol, and other counseling services. But Sgt. Furst and other officers say the same thing, few actually seek out help.
We asked for a list of MPD’s top 5 offenders who frequented the Bear Creek Greenway this year. Their crimes include trespass, drinking in public, prohibited camping, disorderly conduct, and assault.
Each were arrested at least 7 times, put in jail, and within just a few hours… released.
In the first six months of 2019, Medford Police arrested and booked just under 3,000 people in the Jackson County Jail. Over 70 were repeat offenders booked 6 or more times in that span.
Many of them were on the greenway.
“We deal with the same chronic issues over and over,” said Chief Scott Clauson, Medford Police Department. “I put the responsibility on that person for not reaching out to resources that could help them get over their addiction or help them through a mental health crisis.”
Chief Clauson says in recent years their job description has changed.
“The mental health issues [are] affecting a lot of the repeat offenders,” he said.
Chief Clauson says it’s something law enforcement is battling not just here, but across the country.
“When that area is neglected, then it falls to law enforcement to try to fix… and that’s difficult for us,” he said.
“At times those are co-occurring disorders and you need time to separate the two, meaning they need to get off the drugs… long enough to see how you might treat the mental health issues,” said Sheriff Nathan Sickler, Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.
Sheriff Sickler has spent the last year advocating for a bigger jail.
“They really look at not trying to just put this person in jail, but how can we get them off the greenway,” he said.
He says a new jail would not only hold people accountable for the crimes they commit but give them access to services in a sober environment.
“Some of these individuals like this lifestyle because they like to be addicted and they like to not conform with the rules,” he said.
However, Clauson and Sickler agree, jail isn’t the right place for everyone.
“When a person gets desperate, they will do things they shouldn’t do,” said Chad McComas, Executive Director of local non-profit, Rogue Retreat. “But there are still a lot homeless out there who don’t want to be into that activity… they just want to survive.”
McComas says they have a maximum of 50 beds at their emergency shelter.
This past year, he says they had to turn away roughly 230 people.
“Where can the homeless be? Without getting tickets for illegal camping… where they can have the facilities they need, a bathroom, maybe a dumpster or two so we could just put their garbage away and not have to clean it up,” said McComas.
Back in 2017, the non-profit started a transitional shelter in Medford called “Hope Village.”
Its goal is to give someone in-need a roof over their head, so they can get a job, buy a car, earn a stable income and, in effect, leave homelessness behind.
Today, McComas says nearly 60 percent of people who have lived in Hope Village have done just that.
“When we finally get to know the homeless… I think we realize they’re pretty amazing people for just surviving,” he said.
Meanwhile, the many groups that are helping the homeless are still looking for new ideas.
This summer, Chief Clauson went down to sunny San Diego to learn about a “homeless court” for veterans. It’s held in a homeless shelter to resolve misdemeanor offenses and warrants.
“It puts the responsibility back on the person… they have to seek resources,” said Chief Clauson. “They have to show that they’re actively trying to better their situation.”
In June, a livability team was approved by Medford City Council to crack down on criminal behavior downtown and the greenway. Chief Clauson says it will cost taxpayers an additional 1.2 million dollars for the next two years.
“We hope to be able to change people’s behavior. One of the positions that was funded is a code enforcement officer and we’re tailoring that position to be an outreach worker,” he said.
In the Rogue Valley, there are dozens of non-profits dedicated to ending homelessness.
Although the many we spoke with say there’s no “perfect solution,” they all remain hopeful and say, though slow, progress is being made.
“I think everybody desires a beautiful greenway and a place for the homeless to be, both, ” said McComas. “We’ve got to provide a place they can be, not just where they can’t be.”
If you missed part 4, click here.
Amanda Rose is a multimedia journalist for NBC5 News. Amanda graduated from Columbia University earning a Master’s degree in Journalism. She also received a Bachelor’s degree in English with a specialization in literature from the University of British Columbia.
She’s a Los Angeles native, but is thrilled to return to the beautiful Pacific Northwest and is passionate about reporting on the criminal justice system.