Behind the Sweep: An in-depth look into Medford's monthly Greenway operations

Police issued a total of 48 illegal camping citations during December's Greenway Sweep. (KTVL/Genevieve Grippo)

You might have seen the photos shared by local law enforcement-- piles of trash, needles and old clothes left behind by homeless camps after police wipe through the Bear Creek Greenway during their monthly sweeps.

It's a process police have nailed down to a science. A few days before the monthly sweep comes around, officers go out on foot and look for homeless camps along the Greenway.

When they find a camp, they hand out notices warning people to pack up their stuff and get out.

Seventy-two hours later, police revisit the sites in the early hours of the morning. That's when the real work begins.

While most of us were tucked away in our beds just before midnight on Wednesday, members of the Medford Police Department, the Jackson County Sheriff's office, ACCESS and the VA gathered in a briefing room at the Medford Police headquarters and talked strategy.

"The ordinance number is right on the front," said Cpl. James Biddle with JCSO, referencing a warning that had been handed out to homeless campers 72 hours prior. " It says you can't camp or dwell within the Greenway. Whoever's caught will be cited. Run them. If they have probation violation, grab them."

"And it was a few weeks ago that one of the transients that got arrested had a loaded gun," he added. "So this being winter and them having a couple of layers of clothes on, be cognizant that they might have something small that's hidden on them."

This month, it's a team of 14 that makes up the Greenway patrol. The group includes officers and community workers looking to connect services to the homeless.

"Of course we take all the services out here because we're trying to get these people integrated back into society and to start functioning," said Sgt. Steve Furst with MPD. "At least the ones that want to."

With a few more notes about safety, the crew took off towards the Greenway in several patrol cars.

Police start the sweep by visiting pre-determined areas known to house homeless camps. The night started behind gate five of the Expo, where police first found an abandoned tent full of clothes and garbage.

Apparently, it's a common occurrence.

"What they'll do is they'll gather what they want and they'll disappear for a couple of days, and then return to the camp after they know that we've come through," said Cpl. Randy Jewell with MPD.

Jewell expected to make contact with anywhere from 30 to 50 people during the sweep, but he suspects there to be more than 100 camps within Medford city limits.

"At least that," he said.

Soon after, a group of officers came out with their first contact, Amber Kimberlin. She said she's been homeless for year.

"I was in an abusive situation. And it led to drug use, which caused me to lose my children and the house I was in," she said as police wrote her a fine.

She didn't have a warrant, so this time, she was only issued a citation for illegal camping. It's her second one.

"A ticket's A ticket, said Kimberlin. "Hopefully some point in my life I'll be able to get on paying these."

But the fine is the least of her worries.

"Homelessness is the hardest thing I've ever had to do," she said. "The hardest thing is not having a place to shower, not having a place to clean clothes, not having the things that I need to be able to hold a job."

Kimberlin, who said she was once a part of the OnTrack addiction program, admits she's a drug user. Meth is her drug of choice.

"It's mainly because I'm bored," she explained.

Her citation came with a warning to pack up her belongings and move on.

In the morning, a clean up crew will come through and remove what's left of the camp.

Before parting ways, a representative from ACCESS gave Kimberlin a pamphlet of resources to contact for help. They accompany police on nearly every sweep looking specifically for homeless veterans, but even those who didn't serve are given advice on how to get back on their feet.

When ACCESS does come across a homeless veteran, the ultimate goal is to help them find permanent housing.

"I know in the last two months, I've had four veterans call in and request assistance," said Kevin Knapp, who works for ACCESS and accompanies police on nearly every sweep. "When they do that, we put them on our interest list, but we also call Corporal Jewell and he can get rid of their ticket if they seek assistance."

Knapp and his team made contact with two homeless veterans during this most recent sweep.

For others facing cold winter nights on the Greenway, police may also be able to provide a little extra help.

"What'd you say your last name was again?" an officer asked a man bundled up in a tattered hoodie.

"Broad," he replied.

Medford Police are familiar with Kevin Broad. They've seen him on sweeps before.

He's a recovering heroin addict, and said he's been clean for two months.

He's currently on the waiting list for Medford's Addictions Recovery Center, a program that offers a variety of addiction services ranging from day-long care to intensive treatment.

And Broad just got the ARC's version of a golden ticket.

"This is a pass, a priority voucher the Addictions Recovery Center. It's at our discretion to give them out," said MPD officer Emily Stone as she handed Broad the slip that would bump him to the front of the waiting list. "We want you to get the help that you need, and we want you to get treatment, okay?"

With tears in his eyes, Broad shook Stone's hand and gave Sgt. Furst a hug.

But the moment was short lived. The officers' work was far from over.

"Compassion is a good thing to have, but we got a job to do," said Furst.

Tent after tent, police handed out citations like candy-- a total of 48 by the end of the night.

Seven additional citations were issued for trespassing, one for theft, another for open burning, plus five warrant arrests.

Further down the Greenway, police came across one man who sat next to a homemade fire pit without any shoes or socks on.

"You didn't invite us to the bonfire?" said one officer.

Another woman had several candles burning inside her tent for warmth.

"At least they smell good," said Cpl. Jewell. "Are they cinnamon?"

And while the officers managed to stay upbeat as they worked in freezing cold temperatures, the threat of the unknown loomed behind each turn.

As Sgt. Furst ducked through a severed chain link fence, he shined his flashlight on a tree, spray painted with the words "Go Away."

"You walk into these camps, and they might think you're somebody coming to rob them, assault them or take their stuff," said Furst. "And some just don't like cops."

While police say these monthly sweeps have helped increase public safety, the number of homeless people in Jackson County continues to grow.

The Mail Tribune reported earlier this year that there are at least 732 homeless people in the county, with the actual number likely close to 2.5 times that, according to the Jackson County Continuum of Care.

That's up about 100 people since last year.

Even though many of the camps are tucked behind some of our most traveled creature comforts like the I-5 and the Rogue Valley Mall, walking through them feels other-worldly.

Many of the items at the campsites, like grocery carts, tents, clothing and bikes will likely be abandoned following the sweep. And when night turns to morning, another team will be in charge of cleaning it up.

And as for the homeless people who leave their things behind?

"They'll start all over again," said Cpl. Jewell.

That is, of course, for just four more short weeks, when police will hit the Greenway once again.

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