Homeless campground eviction triggers lawsuit threat

A tent city for homeless people has sprung up since the Almeda fire in Hawthorne Park in Medford.

The eviction of homeless people from Hawthorne Park last Monday has sparked a lawsuit threat against the city of Medford.

Justin Rosas, a Medford lawyer, has sent the city and Jackson County a letter warning that a class-action lawsuit is in the works.

“The main function of the suit is to get the city to take away the unconstitutional criminalization of homelessness,” Rosas said. “This is also about the ridiculous and unlawful arrests in Hawthorne Park last week.”

Rosas said the city has violated Constitutional rights by kicking the homeless out of temporary shelters in the park, specifically citing Article 8 of the Constitution regarding cruel and unusual punishment.

About 80 tents were erected in the park just after the Almeda fire destroyed houses and businesses from Ashland to the southern border of Medford.

Among the 11 arrested were April Ehrlich with Jefferson Public Radio, Sam Becker, a campaign manager for Alberto Enriquez, who is running for state representative, and Jesse Sharpe, regional organizer with Community Alliance for Tenants.

Rosas, a public defender from 2007 to 2013, has a private practice in Medford.

In a case that is still pending in Jackson County Circuit Court, Rosas himself was arrested July 4, 2019, for driving under the influence, hit-and-run property damage and criminal mischief after his vehicle left the roadway and landed in Hillcrest Orchards.

According to Medford police, Rosas had a strong smell of alcohol on his breath when he was arrested. Police had to get a warrant after Rosas declined to submit to a Breathalyzer.

Rosas said the city of Medford is engaging in the same sorts of attacks against the homeless as a Grants Pass case, in which U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark D. Clarke in July found the city had violated rights by citing those sleeping outside.

The ruling, which Grants Pass officials have vowed to appeal, is similar to the 2018 Martin v. City of Boise case that found cities cannot make it illegal for people to sleep outside without providing an alternative place for them.

Rosas said Medford kicked the homeless out of the park without providing an alternative place for them.

Rick Whitlock, city attorney for Medford, said the eviction of the homeless camp was an effort to sanitize and clean up the park.

“If we thought there was any Constitutional issues, we wouldn’t have done it,”he said

Whitlock said he’s seen the letter from Rosas, and said the city generally doesn’t comment on litigation.

“We haven’t been served a lawsuit, just a tort claim,” Whitlock said. “Sometimes when you do the right thing, you get sued for that as well.”

Medford police and Rogue Retreat, a local organization that has provided a variety of shelters for the homeless, have said they have been able to find housing for many of those in Hawthorne Park.

Rogue Retreat, in partnership with the city, has created a number of shelters in the past three years, such as an urban campground with 35 tents in north Medford, a collection of 34 tiny houses called Hope Village, and the 50-bed Kelly Shelter, which operates year-round.

Rosas said that while the temporary camp was operating in Hawthorne Park, a homeless person would call Rogue Retreat every day to find out if there was space available at one of the shelters.

“They were told that nothing was available,” he said. “I’d like to point out that I don’t want to diminish the good work that the people at Rogue Retreat are doing.”

Police posted a flyer warning the homeless of the upcoming eviction and listing various places where they could seek shelter such as the Gospel Mission, Rogue Retreat or St. Vincent de Paul.

Rosas said the flyer didn’t list the Jackson County Expo, which has provided temporary shelter for those displaced by the fire.

He said the campground in Hawthorne Park housed up to 100 people.

Rosas said he’s looking at two potential lawsuits, one a class action suit for the homeless and another for what he calls the unlawful arrest of those in the park.

He said both Ehrlich and Essig identified themselves as members of the media but were still arrested.

Chad McComas, executive director of Rogue Retreat, said he believes that if anyone called his organization they were asked to fill out an application before they could be considered for one of shelters.

Rogue Retreat works closely with Medford police’s Livability Team, which patrols the greenway.

“They know who the homeless are, and they know who plays well in the sandbox and who doesn’t,” McComas said.

He said Rogue Retreat does have a screening process, and he estimated some 20 to 30 people from Hawthorne Park found shelter with his organization.

“There are so many mentally challenged individuals that we cannot take them,” he said. “Our staff is just not trained to help them.”

He said Rogue Retreat also accepts sex offenders, depending on the severity of the offense they’ve committed.

McComas said he wishes that he had the ability to take in more people with severe mental health issues, and he said the county needs a facility where it could treat them properly.

Rogue Retreat also gives priority to Jackson County residents who are homeless, he said.

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