Agreed on the Problem, Differing on the Solution: Medford City Council considers a homeless encampment
By Phil Busse, with reporting by Ryan Degan
Although everyone gathered at last week’s city council hearing in Medford seemed to agree that there is an increasing number of—and immediate need to do something, anything for—homeless men and women in the area, there was not a shared idea about a solution. Over the past few years, the number of homeless men and women living in tents around the area has noticeably jumped up, but as dutifully as social service agencies have provided shelters and services, there does not seem to be a lasting solution to hold back the swelling homeless population.
Medford City Council has jumped into the debate as it considers a proposal from a local nonprofit, Rogue Retreat, to lease a plot of land on Front Street as a site for a collection of so-called “tiny houses”—about the size of a garden shed—which would provide semi-permanent housing for otherwise homeless men and women.
But not everyone sees the tiny houses as a solution—or, at least, don’t agree that the plot of land, adjacent to a collection of businesses, is the best location.
Last Thursday, about 15 people showed up at a noon session to provide their thoughts—mainly opposition—to the idea. Some of the most succinct testimony came from John Wing, who sits on the Board of Directors for Randall Theater, which would be neighbors with the new encampment.
“We believe that it sounds like a worthwhile program,” he told the mayor and councilmembers, “however, we believe the placing at the corner of 3rd and Front Street will have a negative impact on us financially.” He added, “we have received messages by phone email and in person from Randall Theater goers with concerns ranging from parking to their own personal safety. Several have told us that if this project moves and they will not return to the theater.”
Wing’s observations and concerns echoed many business owners in the neighborhood, who agreed that there need to be more services and support for the homeless, but fear that a homeless encampment adjacent to their businesses will have adverse financial impacts. “If we were to lose even a small percentage of ticket sales, it would hurt us significantly to the point where we would have to move, which we cannot afford to do, or close our doors all together,” he plainly stated.
The proposed Hope Village seemed to present a particular keen challenge to many of the businesses, as venues like Randall Theater already are active community supporters.
“The Randall,” pointed out Wing, “is the only theater in Oregon that offers name-what-you-want pricing, providing the opportunity for people who might not be able to afford to go to a show to see us.” He continued, “we also provide special screenings for clients of the addiction recovery center and children with developmental challenges.”
He concluded, “We understand the need to provide those are not homeless by choice the opportunity to make a better life, and we support that, (but) we believe in the best interest of the whole village and the businesses surrounding the area to (locate the camp to) a more immediately supportive location.”
Ultimately, the debate focuses a struggle about what the neighborhood will become—and also, about how Medford will manage homeless men and women. Another business owner in the neighborhood pointed out that they had recently purchased a lot in the neighborhood for $750,000 and invested nearly another quarter-million, and that the homeless encampment threatens that investment.
The debate—and proposal of Hope Village—also indicates the growing concern and vexing problem about what to do about homeless populations, which increasingly have been prevalent in smaller cities like Medford and Ashland. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates there are roughly three-quarter million persons who are homeless in the United States—a number that most advocates say far undersells the problem. Estimates vary wildly, but the conservative estimate is there are nearly 10,000 homeless persons in Oregon, while other estimates triple that number.
Although the financial recession triggered by the housing market bust in 2008 has eased for many sectors of the economy, as the economy has rebounded, rents have soared in many Oregon cities. According to a 2015 study, in counties outside of Portland, homeless populations have swelled three times in size in smaller communities. Medford is particular troubled, with an estimated 1200 students in the school district falling within the definition of homeless, a number that has grown 20 percent in the past two years.
Although Medford has a number of strong social service agencies, the numbers are overwhelming. One solution that other cities, like Portland, have tried are so-called “tiny houses.” Proponents have pointed out that semi-permanent housing like the tiny houses is especially attractive for financial reasons. Costing roughly $4000 to build, they are a fraction of the $31,000 that each homeless person, on average, costs public entities like city and state governments in jail stays, hospital room visits and public services, according to the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness.
Providing the most heartfelt testimony for the afternoon, Kim Clark, a case manager for Home at Last, spoke about her own experiences as a homeless person. “I am one of the faces of homelessness,” she explained, and poignantly pointed out, “everybody wants to help the homeless but nobody wants it next to them.”
There is no scheduled vote for the proposal. At this point, council seems divided. By the end of the study session council members Dick Gordon and Chris Corcoran seemed eager to move forward quickly, while Michael Zarosinski wanted further deliberation and Eli Mathews said he couldn’t move forward with this without cooperation from local businesses.