MEDFORD — Strewn clothing, plastic debris and food wrappers of all colors peppered the land under cleanup crew members’ feet near the Bear Creek Greenway Friday — the remnants of illicit homes dismantled and destroyed.
“We’re trying to get back to where things are better balanced now, better managed,” said Jackson County sheriff’s deputy Noah Strohmeyer, who is assigned to patrol county parks and roads, and the Greenway in particular.
In the past four months, Strohmeyer has spent a lot of time in the makeshift neighborhoods constructed among the blackberry bushes and ash trees.
He has also gotten to know the residents: people making homes where none are allowed. Personal circumstances ranging from drug addiction to untreated mental health issues often contribute to their commitment to the Greenway, such that some remained until crews appeared Thursday morning to begin demolition of the camps.
“I knew most of the people that were living down here by name,” Strohmeyer said, walking the muddy path tread down by backhoes and pickup trucks behind the Rogue Valley Square Dance Center.
Strohmeyer and other officials in law enforcement, mental health and animal services, parks and roads departments know that many people displaced by a Greenway “sweep” will soon be back. But the projects are used to maintain the riparian corridor, while potentially connecting homeless people with services.
Strohmeyer said that he has given Greenway dwellers notice for weeks that the sweep was coming. The notices included information about resources to assist with housing, mental health or drug treatment resources. Some people sought those services.
“In the last three or four weeks, this place has really cleared out of a lot of people that were camping here,” he said.
Thursday morning, officers with Medford Police Department’s Livability Team and Jackson County sheriff’s deputies walked the 25 acres earmarked for the sweep. It stretched from Biddle Road to the area behind the Rogue Valley Square Dance Center on Table Rock Road.
Most of the small number of people who lingered until Thursday left when asked, Strohmeyer said. Mike Moran, public information officer for the sheriff’s office, said that just one person was arrested on a warrant throughout both days of cleanup.
Members of Jackson County Search and Rescue flew drones overhead to make sure that no one remained in the area before it filled with backhoes and skid loaders.
The machines picked up the heavy items, including mattresses and makeshift walls, Strohmeyer said.
Next, work crews with Jackson County Community Justice moved into the area to collect debris and garbage for disposal. Each crew had access to a safe disposal box to hold discarded needles. Crews also had to deal with human waste.
Men and machinery formed a disassembly line, transporting items large and small that eventually wound up in the 40-yard dumpsters ordered from Rogue Disposal.
Things left behind that may have been of some value would be stored and efforts would be made to find the owners, Strohmeyer said.
In addition to cleaning up debris from people, Strohmeyer said, this is also the first year that a sweep has added fuels reduction to its mission.
“The fire danger down here in the summer is pretty extreme,” he said. “Clearing the brush while respecting the riparian zone ... we want to have a positive effect on the creek.”
Crews hacked blackberry bushes into submission where they crept toward houses. Later, when the heavy machinery withdrew, officials with the sheriff’s office, the Oregon Department of Transportation and other agencies laid down straw and grass seed to combat erosion.
The two days are far from the end of the story. Strohmeyer will see familiar faces by the Greenway again. He’ll also work with home and business owners to minimize the reach of campers into the newly cleared spaces between properties and the creek.
“There’s a humanitarian side to this, and there’s an environmental aspect of this,” Strohmeyer said. “There’s the safety of anyone that might want to use the Greenway, the safety of the transients living down here.
“Finding the balance of those things is what we need to work on,” he said.