Jason Houk * Medford City Buzz Examiner * December 4th, 2010 3:48 pm PT
At the edge of the community plaza in Ashland Oregon, a group of homeless people have come together to try to raise awareness about the growing problem of poverty, homelessness and the need for a safe campground within the city limits. Ashland is a vibrant community in Southern Oregon that is well known as the home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It’s a little city of about 22,000 people that lies nestled in the valley surrounded by hills and mountains in an area that seems to draw a fair number of dreamers, artists, poets and writers. It’s a place with a tourist driven economy and one that has skirted around the issue of homeless residents for many years.
Technically it isn’t illegal to be homeless in Ashland, but it is also not legal to sleep outside on public property either and therein lies the dichotomy.
It’s about eight o clock on a Friday night, on the fifth day protesters have gathered in the plaza. It is cold enough to see your breath as about a dozen people stand next to a bus stop holding signs asking for solutions.
Some of the signs seem a little angry, but this is largely a peaceful group. “Civil rights, basic human rights are being denied. It’s unacceptable,” says Stephanie Joy, a young woman who is currently homeless. In the distance there are holiday shoppers and fire dancers, and as Stephanie speaks, area residents driving by honking in support.
“I’m convinced that more families will be affected by this and there is a coldness in that.” She pauses for a moment and continues, “It’s also good though in a sense because it is forcing people not to be so distracted. They are talking about it.”
Protests began earlier in the week when police rousted a group of homeless campers sleeping in a wooded area above Lithia Park in Ashland. It was after midnight and the group had nowhere to go. They had been frustrated by earlier encounters with Ashland PD. People who are caught sleeping, camping or cooking on public property face fines and harassment. Finally in a move of desperation the group took up the protest in downtown Ashland across from City Hall.
On the sidewalk under the protesters, some folks have written messages in colorful chalk. One says that Jesus slept outside and above the sidewalk at the entrance of the plaza there is a large lit up menorah. About a million gold lights have been carefully hung up throughout the area so that each downtown shop is illuminated. And in the middle of all of this holiday cheer there are homeless men and women lined up on the sidewalk holding signs, waiting.
Ashland police have issued several citations this week related to the protest. Police say that so far, nobody has been arrested since they have all agreed to keep moving when they have been asked to move on. The general consensus among the protesters seems to be that since they do not have anywhere to go, they are all staying put and will keep protesting and fighting for a legal camping space.
Earlier this week, Ashland’s Police Chief Terry Holderness was quoted in an NBC interview as saying that homeless people could get a free bus ticket to Medford, Oregon where there are social services in place for them. Medford Police Chief Randy Schoen says that “Medford already has a significant homeless population and that is largely due to the social services Chief Holderness has mentioned. The County Health Department, the Veteran’s Administration, job counseling services, drug and alcohol recovery services, shelters and etc are located in Medford. Often these services are close to capacity and in the case of shelters there are times people have to be turned away. This is not just an Ashland or a Medford issue. This is a county wide issue. The Homeless Task Force has some good ideas but often those ideas are limited by access to funding.”
In the meantime other ideas are flowing. “A homeless council could possibly come out of this,” says Critter Salent who is one of the homeless men in the group, “and anyone who does not have a house or pay rent could be on it, so we could have a voice.”
Sean Gordon, a local passerby thinks that one solution might be to get some of the homeless to help keep the downtown area clean. “Sweeping up in front of businesses could go a long way in establishing people’s credibility and they would get business owners support, community support. It’s good karma, he says.”
As the evening progresses the atmosphere changes when four Ashland city police cars suddenly converge on the plaza. Officers gather at the south end of the plaza as the protesters nervously hold their ground. It is still early and the police withdraw but the protesters know the officers will be back.
When asked what the protesters need Critter responds “We need people to come out…” noting they have received some public support, folks standing in solidarity and delivering food and beverages to the determined group.
The challenges facing Ashland and its homeless citizens are not unique to this community. Ashland is in a position to demonstrate compassion and become a leader in finding solutions. If any community has the ability, resources and will it is Ashland, Oregon. “We have to start cooperating together,” says Stephanie Joy.
Vanessa Houk contributed to this article.