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Individuals were allowed to stay at Memorial Park for a short time before being told to leave after complaints from neighbors

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the homeless population in Newberg and the surrounding area has limited options in terms of places to go. As a result, city officials had told some in the community to congregate at Memorial Park in an attempt to express compassion for their situation. But that situation quickly fell apart.

"Due to the impact of the evolving coronavirus crisis, leaders from Chehalem Park and Rec District and the city of Newberg discussed a temporary relax of the park rules for this location," Newberg-Dundee Police Department spokesman Brian Hagen said last week. "This decision was intended as a compassionate approach during a highly unusual time and while interior sheltering options are being limited. While camping in the park is no less prohibited this week as it was a month ago, public services should be adaptable when the greater good is at stake."

Neighbors of the park complained about the noise to local police and eventually the NDPD decided that the gathering exceeded what is being encouraged by Gov. Kate Brown's social distancing guidelines. As a result, homeless individuals were told to disperse and leave the park.

The situation has caused plenty of contentious conversations in the Newberg-Dundee Info Group on Facebook, with some expressing their disdain for the homeless population and denigrating them as a danger to the community. Others are speaking out on behalf of the homeless population, who have nowhere else to go and are in particular danger during the pandemic with many shelters closing and services limited.

This creates a complicated approach for local police as well.

"Issues with homelessness are complicated and it challenges every city in this country," Hagen said. "Police departments, including NDPD, often find themselves caught in the middle of the issue. On one hand, police are obligated to respond to citizen complaints regarding illegal behavior and (are) responsible for enforcing existing laws or ordinances. On the other hand, if enforcement is taken against a group lacking access to housing, than the police are vilified as cruel."

Hagen said the outpouring of support for people in need has been encouraging, but it isn't clear yet what plan local institutions — be they CPRD, the city, NDPD or otherwise — have for homeless people during this crisis. For now, they are more exposed to the virus and lack the resources to care for each other.

"Newberg is a generous community with people or groups willing to offer assistance to those in need," Hagen said. "Our own officers have dug into their wallets to help people going through a rough time and have gone out of their way to use discretion about enforcement when appropriate. The tricky part, in terms of community perception, is how to hold the few accountable who continue to cross the line. It is a delicate balancing act. Our hope is that our community will continue to give us the benefit of the doubt to know the difference."

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