Photo by Grayson Flory
On Sep 12th, in response to the Almeda fire, which displaced many homeowners and houseless neighbors in Southern Oregon, five local community organizers and houseless individuals set up a mutual aid program in Hawthorne Park in Medford. On Sep 28th, eleven people including community organizers Jayden Becker and Jesse Sharpe, and Jefferson Public Radio (JPR) reporter April Ehrlich, were arrested and charged by the Medford Police Department (MPD) with “criminal trespassing” and “resisting arrest.”
For ten days, volunteers gave out food, water, mental health support and other resources not always accessible for houseless individuals. On Sep 20th, MPD notified the Mutual Aid that they would have until September 28th to leave Hawthorne Park. Many shelters including Rogue Retreat were at capacity and could hold no more people. The Gospel Mission had openings, but requires residents to enter into a two-year contract of strict Christianity. After the first notice, the MPD then decided that the over one-hundred houseless individuals living in Hawthorne Park would only have less than 24 hours to vacate the area. In the wake of one of the most tragic events to happen here in Southern Oregon, the tragedy continues. The response from the City of Medford and local police was to disband and dismantle the Mutual Aid program, leaving many houseless people with nowhere else to go. The action from MPD lead to the arrests of Sharpe, Becker and JPR reporter Ehrlich as well as eleven other individuals.
As one of the community organizers who was arrested, Jayden Becker described their harrowing experience of spending sixteen hours in the Jackson County jail, “I was denied blankets in the concrete cell for 5+ hours, and my friend was denied water. I was strip-searched. I didn’t get my phone call for 8.5 hours. I was held about 10.5 hours after I had been bailed out.” They were mistreated and held 10 hours after they had already posted their bail.
Jesse Sharpe, another arrested community organizer, spoke about the dehumanizing and intimidating experience in the jail, “We witnessed an utter disregard for the basic rights of our cellmates. People were cold and unable to get blankets, people were given forms to fill out but refused a pen or pencil, sheriff’s deputies treated everyone there as sub-human and ignored basic requests relating to the bodily needs of people there. Our cellmates spent six hours trying to get a pen/pencil to fill out the form for essential medications that never came.” This lack of empathy and humane treatment does not come as a surprise to community organizers, seeing how they described the way MPD and City of Medford typically treat its own houseless population. As a “problem” that needs to be fixed with incarceration and policing rather than a solution to supporting housing and mental health for homeless individuals who need it.
The Hawthorne Park Mutual Aid Program served a community in crisis. The Almeda fire burned the Bear Creek Greenway, home to many homeless individuals. Community member Spencer Funk, who watched the MPD evict and arrest people from Hawthorn Park, stated, “During that sweep, MPD arrested two journalists and 9 other people. In short, they treated all people on site, not as refugees and responders, but as criminals. Those who were not arrested remain [homeless], and in poverty, but now with absolutely no food, security, or safety. The policies and actions of MPD do nothing to solve the issue of homelessness and addiction in our community.”
Hawthorne Park Mutual Aid Program established a safe space for displaced people to have a place to stay and whatever resources or care that they needed. Jayden Becker stated that, “What is missed in this story is how many of the people who we were taking care of in the camp then passed through. Folks relapsed and were brought in. Folks who had medical and mental health issues that the camp had attended to ended up moving through the hallway. A dozen familiar faces that we had kept out of the jail passed by our door.” According to a KGW8 article published in 2017, 1 in 4 people have a mental health issue and the state of Oregon is ranked the lowest and worst at recognizing mental health issues and providing adequate treatment. It is time for a change. If you would like to contact the Medford City Council please email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.