Sun. May 28th, 2023

As fire danger escalates in Southern Oregon, Medford City Council candidate Matt Roberts seeks to criminalize those living on the frontlines of climate change

On a sweltering October day in Medford, Oregon, five Medford police officers approached a tent nestled among the trees lining the Bear Creek Greenway, a 20-mile paved pedestrian path connecting several towns in Southern Oregon.

“They’re coming,” yelled Pixie, a homeless woman who’s seven months pregnant, to her boyfriend, T-Bone.

The five officers were armed with guns and tactical vests, and some had “livability team” stitched onto their police fatigues. They called out to Pixie and T-Bone, asking them about their living situation.

“We’d already told the same officers why we couldn’t stay in the shelters,” T-Bone said. “It’s a broken record.”

“We’re going to write you a citation, but we could have arrested you,” one officer was heard saying while Street Roots was interviewing T-Bone over the phone. “You gotta stop coming down to the Greenway.”

The scene has been playing out for years: officers offer resources one day and then issue tickets and make arrests the next. The valley’s housing crisis leaves many homeless residents with nowhere to go.

“Until we get housing, there’s nowhere else for us to go,” T-Bone said after the interaction.

A few miles south, the creekbed still shows signs of fire, with many of the cottonwood and alder trees lining the water standing like charred toothpicks. Two years back, the Almeda Fire — the most destructive fire in Oregon’s history — burned along the Greenway. The valley was recovering, and the event dominated the valley’s politics.

Shortly after, a group called the Greenway Recovery Project began to organize around a set of environmental issues along the waterway. The most prominent tactic? Blaming people like T-Bone and Pixie for the fire. The strategy caught on and signaled a shift in how anti-homeless politicians were able to gather political power: by connecting the homeless community to a politic of environmental concern.

Aside from making rote arguments about “livability” concerns and connecting those living in extreme poverty to violence and drugs, they also called them “arsonists” and “transients” who “have chosen” to remain homeless. County data shows the majority of Medford’s homeless residents consider Medford home, and, as residents themselves will describe, numerous barriers prevent people from entering shelters. Reports of discrimination at local shelters abound, and month- and years-long waitlists for shelters, Housing Choice Voucher-approved apartments, and mental health and addiction services keep people living on the streets.

The Greenway Recovery Project quickly collected and delivered 1,272 electronic letters from Medford residents asking Medford City Council to crack down on illegal camping, citing fires as their number one public safety concern.

The campaign won in a landslide. Medford City Council passed an ordinance on a 6-2 vote, banning camping along the Bear Creek Greenway during fire season (May 1-Sept. 31) and making violations punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.

“People living unhoused are told they are being swept –– evicted –– for every reason under the sun. The bottom line, regardless of stated reason for sweeps, is that some housed people and businesses don’t want unhoused people living in their communities.”

– Erin Goodling, Research and Development Director at Western Regional Advocacy Project

In a test of the palatability of the group’s politics, the founder of the Greenway Recovery Project, Matt Roberts, recently announced his bid for a seat on Medford City Council.

Roberts did not return multiple interview requests for this story.

“(Homelessness) has so many ties to what’s affecting our valley right now that I think it should be the primary focus,” Roberts recently opined on the “Bill Meyer Show,” a right-wing radio show where Meyer has entertained ideas about same-sex marriage disintegrating American culture, Muslims being “radically intolerant,” and ivermectin sufficiently treating COVID-19.

In the episode, Roberts, who works as a campus police officer at Southern Oregon University, placed the blame for issues associated with poverty and ecological changes on homeless residents themselves. He did not mention the chronic economic issues affecting Southern Oregon’s rural counties, including climate change-fueled wildfire smoke, the extreme scarcity of housing and investment in industries like tourism, real estate and health care that prioritize the interests of landowners and people with generational wealth while furthering wealth consolidation in the valley’s post-timber era.

Scapegoating and criminalizing homeless residents for systemic failures is not new, according to Erin Goodling, Research and Development Director at Western Regional Advocacy Project, a group working with housing justice and mutual aid groups primarily in Oregon, Washington and California.

“People living unhoused are told they are being swept –– evicted –– for every reason under the sun,” Goodling said. “The bottom line, regardless of stated reason for sweeps, is that some housed people and businesses don’t want unhoused people living in their communities.”

In this case, the highly visible changing ecological conditions in the Rogue Valley, including smoke and fire, that shutter businesses catering to tourists, make breathing dangerous and render unbearable a region that for nearly a century has billed itself as Oregon’s eden.

Fanning fury with misinformation

As climate change rapidly transforms ecological conditions across the country, homeless residents are being blamed for the very real concerns people in fire-prone areas like Medford have about fires destroying their livelihoods.

According to an email obtained via public records request, Roberts wrote Medford City Councilors on March 31, 2021, stating, “The greatest concern for public safety along the greenway is fire danger.” Later in the same email, he pointed to data to back up his claim: “These camps … have been the source of 220 illegal fires in 2020.”

Email records show Roberts received this data from Medford Fire Department staff on March 19, 2021, but both he and staff mischaracterized the data.

“Greenway fires are identified as either vegetation fires, trash fires, grass fires, brush fires or illegal burns, which are all terms used to refer to fires resulting from human activities such as cooking, camping, “warming fires”, [sic.] incendiary acts, accidents, and undetermined fire causes,” Medford Fire Department Fire Marshall Chase Browning wrote in an email forwarded to Roberts. “In the year 2020, we had approximately 220 fire-related incidents along the Greenway and related areas.”

Browning neglected to mention the 220 fire-related incidents he cited were calls for service rather than instances in which fire crews were dispatched to the Bear Creek Greenway and put out an active fire — a fact he confirmed for this story. Calls for service are tracked by the dispatch center, and the bulk of these calls for service are characterized as ‘undetermined’ since a probable ignition source was not identified, according to Browning.

In other words, Roberts neither had information about the housing status of people at the scene of a fire, the number of instances in which fire crews put out an active fire, nor the severity of the fire that crews put out. Nevertheless, he proceeded to characterize each of these calls for service as an imminent threat to the city generated by homeless residents living along the greenway.

This mischaracterized data became a centerpiece of the campaign to pass the revised ordinance. It was spread by local media outlets like the Mail Tribune, shared by the Greenway Recovery Project and other Facebook pages, and used by Medford Fire Department Chief Eric Thompson during his presentation in support of the ordinance on April 1, 2021.

While reducing fire danger along the greenway was the stated goal of the Greenway Recovery Project and the new ordinance, calls about fires along the greenway have not steadily declined since the ordinance passed, according to data shared by Browning.

In 2021, after the ordinance passed, there were 125 fire calls along the greenway between May 1 and Sept. 31, up from 110 during the same period in 2020, according to data from Browning. There were 77 calls during that period in 2022.

When the fire call data is broken out over the year, the numbers follow a similar pattern. There were 220 fire calls along the greenway in 2020, 267 calls in 2021, and Browning expects upwards of 200 calls this year.

Any increase or decrease in fire calls cannot be solely attributed to the ordinance, according to Browning. “Variables that may affect incident rates include, but are not limited to, weather trends, public outreach and education, codes and ordinances, etc.”

T-Bone said the harsher punishments for camping and having fires have not stopped him and others camped along the greenway from camping and having fires.

“It’s a necessity,” T-Bone said. “You gotta have fire to cook food, for warmth and for light.”

After the ordinance passed, he said he just moved further out of sight, deeper into the foliage where fire danger is higher.

Translating climate anxiety into anti-homeless politics

Fires are natural to Oregon’s ecology, but fuel suppression, and the legacy of intensive timber extraction have created a tinder box. Climate change is also making the annual fire season longer and more severe. The likelihood of extreme autumn fire weather has already increased 40% as a result, according to a recent study by Oregon State University researchers. A number of studies predict large increases in the annual burned area across the state, including one by researchers at Oregon State University and the United States Department of Agriculture that predicts up to a 310% increase by the end of the century.

Despite apparent concern for fire, climate change has neither been mentioned on the Greenway Recovery Project Facebook page nor on Robert’s campaign website.

Robert’s decision to focus on fire is all smoke and mirrors, said a member of Siskiyou Rising Tide, an activist group “dedicated to promoting community-based solutions to the climate crisis (and) taking direct action to confront the root causes of climate change,” according to its Facebook page. The organizer requested anonymity due to concerns of retaliation from local far-right groups.

“The irony of blaming the people who are out on the streets living in wildfire smoke and massive heat waves that are killing more and more people every year is that … (they’re) not at all talking about the causes of climate change, and the multinational corporations that created climate change,” the organizer said.

He said blaming homeless people for fire is merely the most recent rhetorical tool people like Roberts have latched onto to criminalize the existence of homeless people. It allows them to maintain “the illusion that something is happening when in reality people are just struggling more and more every day,” the organizer said.

In addition to a lack of evidence criminalizing homelessness reduces homelessness, experts on homelessness agree laws criminalizing homelessness make life more challenging, more stressful and less safe for homeless residents.

T-Bone agrees.

“(The ordinance has) made it harder in every aspect of my life; in my relationship (with Pixie) and my interaction with people,” T-Bone said. “It’s gotten me to a point where I’m jaded and bitter and angry all the time. I’m constantly looking over my shoulder. I’m constantly worried about whether law enforcement … Are they coming to take my stuff? Are they going to arrest me?”

Anti-homeless politics and its far-right connection

Roberts was not alone when he launched the Greenway Recovery Project. A Facebook post and email correspondence show the self-described “moderate conservative” had help from Ryan Mallory, a communications professional who is best known for his popular Rogue Valley Scanner Facebook page, which is a newsfeed culled from police reports — a concentrated hit of all the crime in the valley, and a place for residents to express and amplify fear.

Mallory’s social media footprint shows a demonstrable history of far-right, multi-issue activism, including coordinating counterprotesters during 2020 racial justice protests and organizing against the expansion of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.

He was recently involved with the creation of a number of groups that fought mask and vaccine mandates, including Southern Oregon First, Maskless Women of Southern Oregon and Maskless People of Southern Oregon. These groups have coordinated with Ammon Bundy’s People’s Rights network, a far-right network working to use government and vigilante power to protect the “righteous” against “wicked” liberals, anti-fascists, Black Lives Matter protesters and others.

Mallory did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

According to the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights, the social media network Mallory helped build in Southern Oregon “is a prime example of how COVID denial provides a steady flow of newly radicalized activists into the far-right pipeline.”

The Siskiyou Rising Tide organizer sees a parallel between the way Mallory has leveraged COVID denial and homelessness: both are being used as a point of entryism into far-right circles.

“Ryan Mallory just jumps from issue to issue depending on what’s trending at the moment,” he said. “He’s just doing whatever he can do to rile up people in this populist base that he can then infuse with far-right and ‘patriot movement’ politics.”

While Roberts’ posts on the Greenway Recovery Project page generated controversy for the way they stereotyped homeless residents, supported failed tough-on-crime policies, and advanced the misconception that safe consumption practices are harmful, they pale in comparison to the type of ideas that he permits in the comments below.

Commenters describe homeless residents as “walking parasites,” “druggies” and “worthless criminals” while suggesting they should be deported, removed by the National Guard, ousted by vigilante groups, left to die if overdosing and killed in the name of preserving the environment. They’ve also sent death threats to an organizer who provides safe consumption supplies to homeless residents.

Researchers say the intersection between the far-right and environmentalism is bigger than many people realize, and it’s growing with the onset of climate change. At this intersection lies rhetoric about and action to disappear or kill poor, non-white people in the name of environmental preservation. Examples of what researchers have coined “eco-fascism” range from the United States’ genocide of Indigenous communities to the Nazi’s genocide of the Jews to the El Paso shooter’s rationale for murdering 20 people in 2019.

While the Greenway Recovery Project has yet to result in confirmed acts of violence against homeless residents living along the greenway and those who support their survival, the Siskiyou Rising Tide organizer said it has opened the door to that possibility.

Voters like compassionate solutions

Homelessness is a key issue for Southern Oregon residents, but criminalization is neither effective nor popular.

According to the results of a recent survey conducted by Moore Information Group, 92% of Southern Oregon residents say homelessness is an important issue. When asked to identify their “first choice to solve the homeless problem in Southern Oregon,” 36% chose mental illness and substance abuse counseling, 19% chose subsidized affordable housing and 11% chose temporary housing such as tiny home projects.

Only 1% of respondents chose enforcement of camping bans and removal of campsites, and 2% chose enforcement of zero-tolerance drug laws.

This reality could spell peril for Robert’s electoral strategy, one that frames criminalizing and incarcerating people for camping, having fires and using drugs as the only path to solving homelessness.

His strategy is also out of touch with what homeless residents say would help end their homelessness. AllCare Health, a Southern Oregon healthcare provider, conducted a 2018 survey of the 250 homeless residents that found a lack of stable income and access to affordable housing were the biggest barriers to ending their homelessness.

Roberts’ campaign website, campaign Facebook page and Greenway Recovery Project Facebook page offer few details on how he would help homeless residents overcome these barriers. When he mentions homeless services, like temporary shelter and addiction recovery, it is coupled with calls to ticket and arrest those who are not using them because it forces them to interface with service providers as they make their way through the court system.

T-Bone said this tactic pushed him and many fellow homeless residents away from services. Police have issued T-Bone numerous citations since the ordinance passed. He was also arrested and jailed for failing to appear in court for one of those camping tickets.

“Criminalization hasn’t created a situation where less people are living outside and needing to cook and stay warm,” the Siskiyou Rising Tide organizer said. “Until people have housing, they will do what they need to do to survive.”

He said if people like Roberts want to get serious about solving homelessness, the community must come together to support “housing solutions that are as diverse and multifaceted as the people who are unhoused and are responsive to the needs, vision, leadership and direction of unhoused people.”

With Pixie’s baby due on Dec. 1, she and T-Bone are starting to get desperate for a long-term housing solution.

“Finding a home is vitally important,” T-Bone said. “I want someplace to be able to put my stuff and know that I’ll be safe. More so now than ever before because it’s not about just me; there’s me, my girlfriend and our soon-to-be-born kid.” 

Street Roots is an award-winning weekly investigative publication covering economic, environmental and social inequity. The newspaper is sold in Portland, Oregon, by people experiencing homelessness and/or extreme poverty as means of earning an income with dignity. Street Roots newspaper operates independently of Street Roots advocacy and is a part of the Street Roots organization. Learn more about Street Roots. Support your community newspaper by making a one-time or recurring gift today.

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