Homeless camp in plaza to protest police citations

Ashland homeless residents protesting recent police citations for illegal camping had to decide Tuesday night whether they were willing to be taken to jail for pitching tents in the plaza a second night.

The plaza became a temporary homeless camp Monday night when about 25 people pitched tents in the downtown core to protest being cited by police for camping in Ashland's forests. Six colorful tents and multiple sleeping bags could be seen in the center of the plaza until about 8 a.m.

Ashland Police Chief Terry Holderness told the demonstrators Monday morning that if they camped in the plaza a second time, police would view them as illegal campers, instead of protesters, and issue them citations. Campers who still refused to move would be cited for refusing a lawful order and would be taken to jail, he said.

"If they camp there again tonight and refuse to leave, they probably will go to jail," Holderness said Tuesday, adding that officers are following city laws.

City Councilman Eric Navickas, a homeless advocate, said he supported the demonstrators and believes citing them "could be considered cruel and unusual punishment."

"Arresting people who are impoverished and have nowhere else to go is clearly a civil rights violation," he said.

Late Tuesday the protesters were still deciding whether to camp in the plaza. Stephanie Joy, 28, said if the group decided to continue the protest, she was ready to go to jail.

"I'm prepared to get arrested," she said. "I'm willing to stand here and let them put cuffs on me."

Several in the group said they were leaning toward asking a church whether they could stay for the night or finding a secretive place to camp where they hoped they wouldn't be cited. Others suggested staying up all night in the plaza.

"I'm willing to stay here all night, awake," said John Gilmour, 21.

The demonstrators, which include about a dozen longtime Ashland homeless residents and about a dozen people who are traveling through Ashland, said they planned to continue their protest during the daytime by propping up signs and camping gear in the plaza. On Tuesday, they held signs reading "Sleeping is not a crime," "Homeless but human" and "Jesus was poor and homeless too."

"Every day we're going to be right back up here, sitting here protesting, because we don't have any other option," said Veronica Michels, 26. "We just need somewhere we can sleep."

Congregating in the plaza is legal — but camping is not. A prohibitive camping citation carries a $142 base fine, and that amount can be increased by several hundred dollars for subsequent offenses, said Ashland police Officer John Perrone. The city lowered the base fine from $362 a few months ago, as part of an overhaul of the city's fees for code violations, he said.

In the past week, police have cited eight people for illegal camping on city property or trespassing on private property, including a group of six that was cited in the forest near the intersection of Granite Street and Glenview Drive. Holderness said the area is not typically patrolled by police during winter months, but officers came across the camp while conducting a robbery investigation.

The protesters said they believe police are cracking down on homeless campers since the Oak Knoll fire in August. Investigators believe the fire was accidentally started by a homeless man who was spending the afternoon in a dry field behind the Arco gas station on Ashland Street near Interstate 5.

However, Holderness said police aren't enforcing no-camping laws more strictly because of the fire.

Although Monday's protest began with about 45 demonstrators in front of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce office downtown, chamber officials said they were unaware of the protest until contacted by the Daily Tidings. In the past, downtown business owners and tourists have expressed concern about homeless residents congregating downtown, said Katharine Flanagan, chamber marketing director.

"We've received numerous complaints both at our office and also from business owners pertaining to the behavior, consisting of profanity, public intoxication, illegal drugs, public urination, dogs fighting," she said. "Their concern is primarily for the safety of our visitors and locals."

The protest came days after the city released a report that found Ashland lacks a number of social services that would help homeless residents secure jobs or find housing.

Many of the services, including shelters, are available in Medford, but homeless Ashland residents are often unable to access them because of travel and timing difficulties, said Linda Reid, the city's housing program specialist.

One of the council's goals for this year and next is to study homelessness in the city and develop strategies for aiding homeless residents. The council is expected to weigh in on the city report early next year.

Several of the protesters said they don't see Medford's shelters as a solution to homelessness in Ashland.

"I don't want to go to Medford because there are too many problems in Medford with drugs and crime," said Guinevere Armstrong, 28, who said she is a few months' pregnant and has been homeless in the Rogue Valley for much of her life.

Some of Ashland's homeless residents have racked up more than a dozen illegal camping violations, Holderness said.

A man who has been homeless for eight years in Ashland and identified himself as Zero said he has more than $9,000 in illegal camping fines.

The protesters want to work with the city to set up a homeless campground or shelter in Ashland, Joy said.

Until then, the homeless residents likely will continue to be cited for illegal camping and they will continue to protest, said a man who identified himself as Critter Satellite.

"We've got about 30 people who could get tickets tonight," he said Tuesday as he protested on the plaza. "We could all get tickets camping in the woods or we could all get tickets here."

Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.

Share This Story