Seated around a campfire in the drizzling rain Monday night, Ashland's homeless told city fathers they want a safe and legal place to sleep and suggested Ashland Creek Park as a site for a homeless camp.
Longtime homeless spokesman Randy Dolinger said the site on West Hersey Street, surrounded by homes and a church, would help "decriminalize" homelessness.
Mayor John Stromberg and two council members told the tiny gathering they have no plans for a homeless camp, but pledged they would study the issue soon.
"It would have no fire danger and would be centrally located so we can get about our business and actually do something with our lives, instead of dealing with the hassles, problems and dangers of being homeless," said Dolinger, who invited the city officials to a campfire in upper Lithia Park.
City Councilman David Chapman said the land, situated on a floodplain by Ashland Creek between Oak and Water streets, is planned for development as a trail between the Plaza and dog park — and that tents, porta-potties and showers would create a "big worry" to residents no matter where the amenities were located.
"There would be a response (from residents)," said Chapman. "I don't know how adamant it would be, but it would happen no matter where it was proposed. Randy will have to make a compelling case and that's what we're listening for."
Stromberg said any options involving parkland would be the domain of parks and recreation officials and that he was at the gathering to listen.
"I have no idea what's possible," said Stromberg. "We've never done anything like it."
The 7-acre Ashland Creek Park, sometimes called Vogel Park, will be developed into a community park soon, with playground, benches, plaza space, existing community garden and outdoor classroom for Master Gardeners, said city Parks and Recreation Director Don Robertson in a phone interview.
Any homeless proposal "would create a number of concerns for community members," he said.
Ashland has a steady homeless population, which usually camps in the wilds of the watershed. The city has passed ordinances against camping within city limits, and during fire season it sweeps the homeless from the watershed. Housing referrals for the homeless were handled by the Interfaith Care Community, but those services shut down in April 2008.
"It's outrageous that the police can decide how much sleep you can get," said Brent, a newly jobless and homeless man who declined to give his last name. "I favor a camp because it'll cause less friction between the city and the homeless and they won't have to hang out on street corners."
Councilman Eric Navickas, a frequent spokesman for homeless rights, said the Ashland Creek Park site would be "very controversial," but there needs to be a debate on where to place a camp — and that it would be valuable as a place for transition to self-sufficiency.
"It's really difficult to look for a job when you need a shower and are under extreme stress," said Navickas. "People should be provided shelter during this time. Addressing the most impoverished members of the community — that's the next civil right."
Homeless people need the tools — phone, Internet access, storage for belongings — provided earlier by the Interfaith Care Community-Ashland, Navickas said, adding that since ICCA closed, the city library has become "a proxy homeless shelter in the winter, warm and safe, but it's putting a lot of pressure on staff."
The problem, he said, could be handled by "something as simple as lifting the ban on camping."
Ashland resident Carrie Zoll brought soup for the campfire gathering. She said the city needs a place for homeless people to transition because "it could happen to anyone. You can't just turn a blind eye. A lot of people are afraid, but there has to be a solution, a nice central resource space where they have lockers and get 30 days (to get on their feet).
"Helping those in need is the highest calling," added Zoll, a cultural resource specialist. "They're treated like animals. It's disgusting. Let's think about infrastructure that catches them before they fall. They can be asked to put in hours working in exchange for a stable place."
Kathryn Flynn, a frequent watershed hiker, said she's met many of Ashland's homeless and considers them "a fact of life," a presence that "a lot of people are afraid of, thinking they will be ripped off, so they avoid communication."
Flynn said the homeless are often freezing at night and need a bathroom, so she supports some kind of shelter.
Ashland Creek Park is likely to be developed "sooner, rather than later," noted Robertson, because of voter renewal of the city's 5 percent meals tax.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.