by Hannah Seibold & Zachary Jones Neuray – IVN contributing writers
Oregon is not a major player on the national election stage due to its strong Democratic tilt driven by the metropolitan areas, which leaves some voter voices unamplified. Particularly quelled are the views of the state’s youth, as well as rural and frontier residents. The Fund for Oregon Rural Journalism, a nonprofit founded to support professional news publications in rural areas, partnered with students from University of Oregon’s Catalyst Journalism Project to provide a platform for voter voices in all regions of the state.
The Voter Voices Project started in Central Oregon and has continued to report on Oregonians’ opinions throughout the majority rural state. Josephine County comprises two small cities: Grants Pass and Cave Junction, and a dozen rural unincorporated areas. People were asked about their concerns and hopes rather than their political affiliation or particular candidates in an effort to have an open dialogue.
“There’s a large overlap, like a venn diagram, of opinions that are the same,” said Forest Smith, a resident of Grants Pass. “People want their families to be safe, secure and want to be able to make enough money to provide for everybody.”
Voters spanning from Cave Junction to Gold Hill spoke to reporters about what their friends, family and neighbors feel would make Oregon and the U.S. a better place for all.
Josephine County, home to Cave Junction and Grants Pass, is recognized for its vast scenery, conducive climate and endless outdoor recreation. Of the 88,346 residents, 92.4% are white alone, just under 8% are Hispanic or Latino, and the county’s median age is 47.5, according to the latest census data.
Voters in this region were focused on a variety of issues such as homelessness, cost of living, water rights and the lack of infrastructure that the county receives from state politics. Just over 36% of its 68,425 registered voters are nonaffiliated; 35% are registered Republicans and 20% are registered Democrats.
Jackson County neighbors Josephine County and is home to numerous rural towns including Gold Hill, Talent and Shady Cove. Of the 223, 734 residents, 91.4% are white alone and 14.3% are Hispanic or Latino and the county’s median age is 42.6. Just over 34% of the 159,086 registered voters are nonaffiliated; 30.8% are Republicans and 27.6% are Democrats.
Despite stark differences in voter demographics, community members expressed similar hopes and concerns for Southern Oregon.
Homelessness and Mental Health
“I’m what they call a local,” said Shane McCarthy, a Cave Junction resident of 30 years and Bud Bros. Dispensary employee. He detailed how the homeless population has expanded due to struggling mental health as a contributing factor.
“There’s people around here that are wandering around and you can see in their eyes that they’re not there,” said McCarthy. “I feel like they have mental problems and if they were able to get the help they needed, it wouldn’t spiral down into homelessness – and now they’re a nuisance to people.”
Having lived in the area for decades, McCarthy can identify many unhoused residents as longtime locals. He said many suffering from mental health issues are also dealing with homelessness and drug use, and services to address those are lacking in their community.
Unhoused community members have often found themselves in uncontrollable predicaments. The origin stories of many highlight that their lives were changed rapidly, within a matter of moments.
Jessie Hopwood, 39, has faced the adversities of drug use. He worked as the Merlin fire crew superintendent for 15 years, and after the finalization of his divorce, fell back into using meth.
“It’s kind of difficult. You don’t remember a lot of it. It just happens; your brain is numb and your brain is working on instinct,” said Hopwood. “I remember being cold out here sometimes and I remember people helping me out along the way.”
City members speak frequently about the heightened homeless population, but the streets often resemble a ghost town. While the region offers an abundance of nature these areas now serve as shelter for countless unhoused.
“We don’t have drastic change here, we have the hidden homelessness here in the woods and by the river,” said Laura Mancuso, 53, a board member with Illinois Valley Living Solutions and editor-in-chief at the Illinois Valley News. “We have elderly sleeping in their cars.”
Mancuso has been involved with launching support for the unhoused in their community within her 11 years of living in the Illinois Valley. The nonprofit she works with now is driven by focusing on health, well-being and stable housing. She also started a mail service to provide assistance in getting unhoused people valid IDs and birth certificates.
“You’re living in a tent by the river, all your stuff is stolen and you don’t have an ID. How are you going to get a job?” Mancuso queried. “You can’t cash a check, you can’t get a bank account or anything without an ID.”
With direct funding from Representative Lily Morgan, Illinois Valley received $630,000 to implement a homeless shelter. Mancuso said they are in the process of buying a 3.5-acre property within Cave Junction City limits. This facility will offer 15 small housing units, showers, living areas and laundry services and is the first of its kind in the area.
Mancuso described an overwhelming sense of community and empathy that exists throughout the Illinois Valley.
“There’s people here who were law abiding citizens who had a traumatic event happen to them, and they just can’t cope with society,” said Mancuso. “Once they can’t cope and they’re sleeping in a sleeping bag by the river, that down and out, how do they get back into society?”
“I think that we need to focus on what the future holds, not what the past offered,” said Marguerite Merritt, 35, the marketing manager of Rogue Creamery, who has been living in Southern Oregon since 2016. She moved from Missouri for “greener pastures,” and became the official cheese emissary of the creamery in 2018.
For the upcoming midterm election, Merritt believes that a “particular focus on environmental advocacy and sustainability initiatives” should be at the forefront of Oregon’s political agenda.
Merritt believes that a focus on education and a fully-funded statewide public school system will ensure that “Oregonians are prepared to enter the workforce educated and capable of becoming leaders.”
“In this community some of the money from people’s investments, themselves and the town should go toward the youth,” said Katie Bell, 30, a local Dutch Bros. Coffee barista. “If there’s nothing to do, they find trouble.”
Bell has lived in Cave Junction for 20 years and explained the ramifications of living in an underfunded, small community. Within her younger demographic she described a sense of hopelessness for individuals looking to initiate change.
“I think a lot of people just don’t vote because, ‘It is corrupt or my vote doesn’t matter,’” said Bell. “They should have their voice heard and get it out there, but I think they put their hands up and don’t really feel like there’s anything they can do about it, so they’re just not.”
The need for youth-friendly facilities is an ongoing issue, and as more bars are added to the town, Bell explained the discouragement this perpetuates for younger residents.
Betsy Guerra, 18, works at Diggin’ Livin’ Natural Foods, Farm and Eatery and recently graduated from Illinois Valley High School. As a part of the youth, Guerra recounted an absence of activities for minors.
“I’m saving enough money to be able to get out,” said Guerra. She expressed additional concerns of a general scarcity of amenities for their community extending beyond the youth.
“I think what would really help this community is some kind of rehab center or a homeless shelter. There are a lot of things that could clean up this place pretty nicely,” said Guerra. “This town is pretty run down here.”
This rhetoric was shared across the county.
Andy Baida, 47, owner of Casablanca Coffee & Grill, has resided on and off in Grants Pass since he was born. He built his restaurant with the idea to produce quality food that utilizes local produce and prioritizes sustainability.
With his restaurant cozied up in downtown, Baida recounts seeing the effects of the homelessness crisis affecting his community due to a lack of resources.
“The homeless situation is tough, the city bought a property next to the hospital in the highest rent district in the city and they want to put a shelter there. It is affecting local business owners in the area,” said Baida. “It needs to be somewhere more accessible for them.”
Baida urged that temporary housing facilities are needed in the community, but their location should be established by convenience for those in need while considering the impact on neighboring businesses.
Within areas of the state that have implemented these resources there are still changes that could be more effective.
Sam Schuh, 28, has worked at Breeze Botanicals Dispensary in Gold Hill for five years and described the obstacles that exist within the services being provided for the unhoused in her area.
“Even in our housing communities where they are the ones in need they aren’t able to bring meals into their facilities to cook,” said Schuh. “They’re having to spend extra money to go out to eat places; it seems counterproductive.”
Despite communal agreements to create more infrastructure for their communities, people also express the need to be considerate in fulfilling all the basic necessities within these new facilities.
Cannabis and Water Use
Jonathan Ruspil, 41, has been cultivating cannabis since 1999. “It’s kind of like in my blood,” he said, bending over to clip the bud of a towering plant. He has been harvesting at 54 Green Acres farms since 2016 and is a native of Cave Junction.
“This area in Southern Oregon is looked at as one of the most biodiverse environments in the country,” said Ruspil. He decided to grow in the region because of its unique climate and, as an avid fisherman, its pristine rivers.
He spoke about the recent appearance of illegal cannabis farmers that have reportedly stolen “enormous” amounts of water and “don’t give two shits about the land,” said Ruspil. “They just came here for the dollar.”
Ruspil anticipates a shift toward federal legalization of marijuana in the future, allowing for the transportation of cannabis across state lines that could transform the industry.
“Right now Oregon is producing more weed than it is able to consume,” said Ruspil.
The cannabis industry has been a major economic and cultural backbone of the region for decades. Joshua Gibbs, 53, has been an attorney for more than 15 years with a focus on criminal defense and cannabis compliance issues in Oregon.
“In the last few years, people started to go nuts,” said Gibbs in regards to the surge in illegal cannabis growth. “It’s not the people who live here.”
In the three years that Gibbs has lived in the Valley, he has witnessed a surge in locals being displaced due to their properties being bought off.
“People from elsewhere would show up and open a suitcase,’’ said Gibbs. “So it’s not about marijuana at that point, it’s about temptation. What hurts my heart is that you’re poking at someone’s weakness and manipulating that.”
Joshua Kent, 54, has been living in Cave Junction since 2015 and has been the managing director of 54 Green Acres cannabis farm for the past two years.
While being one of the only “100% organic and outdoor cannabis farms in the state,” Kent believes that with the decriminalization or legalization of all drugs in Oregon, “you need to have support systems in place with health care.”
With homelessness and cost of living on the rise throughout the county and state, Kent said that “bringing in jobs that will be sustainable for the state” is vital for Oregon’s economy and people. “We need industry all across… instead of the disenfranchising of people across the state. You need to have a plan for Portland, Medford, Grants Pass, Burns and it’s an interesting dynamic.”
“I think you’re going to start to see a lot more independent individuals running for positions. It’s interesting to see more options,” said Kent. In response to the upcoming midterm elections he describes American politics as “pretty divisive.”
Vin Deschamps, 76, owner and founder of 54 Green Acres Farm, has had the property since 2016. Deschamps described seeing national politics reverting toward “two extremes.”
“From a federal standpoint I’m terribly disappointed in the lack of anything bipartisan,” Deschamps said. “I don’t see us continuing to have a harmonious country if we’re going to continue to say ‘one of us has to be right.’ There’s no fairness.”
“My message is the same: I think everybody should be honest, work hard, have integrity, be fair and communicate well,” said Deschamps. He explained these core values have prevailed in bringing success to his professional and personal life. “I think for me it’s a non-starter.”
Pride in Oregon
While there are unresolved concerns for Oregonians, there is still an immense appreciation for the nature, beauty and sense of unity that remains in the state.
Christie Fairchild, 38, owns Ascension Art & Teahouse in Cave Junction. Her store opened in March 202o and she faced the common hardships of being a new business owner during the pandemic.
There was a steady flow of foot traffic of regulars eager to chat with Fairchild, demonstrating how bound together the community is. She explained how the closeness of people within the area is motivating.
“It’s such a condensed population of magic people,” said Fairchild. “Powerfully out of the box, trying to help others; everyone doesn’t just take or eat what they’re fed.”
Smiles painted on the faces of passersby emulated the humanity that community members explain serves as a foundation for their town.
“I’d like for us to get something done together as opposed to being polarized one way or the other,” said Norval Edward Doddridge, 65, who’s been working at Abby’s Legendary Pizza in Central Point for almost 20 years.
Doddridge feels like there’s a lack of honesty in political advertisements:
“They’re just saying what they need to say to be elected,” Doddridge said. “I like to know that we’re being listened to and I need to feel trust in the people that will be working for us.”
The sentiment of commitment to one another is something people value from their peers whether from a governing body or their next door neighbor.
“I love the environment. I actually like the people too for the most part,” Doddridge said. “When I was younger and had moved back to Oregon, somebody let me get in on the freeway and that to me showed the courtesy to somebody you didn’t even know,” Doddridge said. “I appreciate the courtesy.”
From divey sports bars to organic grocery stores rooms were consistently filled with passionate attitudes toward how Oregonians respect one another.
“For me, I love that this is a place with legalized weed and assisted suicide for people that need that,” said Forest Smith, an associate at Listen Here & Phoenix Glass in Grants Pass. “To me, it is a very humane state.”
Smith, 32, has resided in Grants Pass since 1996 and spoke on issues surrounding drug use, homelessness and gun rights in the state. Despite these considerations, he conveyed how admirable the good qualities of Oregon are.
“I love it here; there’s a lot to love,” said Smith. “I try to not get too focused on the downsides.”
Many people describe a balance within their communities of acknowledging social, economic and political problems while having an optimistic view of the environment they are able to live in.