Homeless issue hits home

Friday night I had an encounter that puts Ashland's homeless issue in some perspective.

I recently moved out near exit 19, but I shop, visit and work in town. It was dark when I caught the route 10 bus from Oak Street at around 6 p.m. heading home after several meetings, loaded with groceries and work supplies. I started to put a 20 in the farebox, told the busdriver, "Whoa, I don't want to put that one in there," and spilled about $30 dollars in ones and the 20 on the floor. I gathered the money and put a single in the till. The driver asked me where I was going, because the fare to Medford is $2 and I'd only paid one. I said, "Valley View," the second-to-last Ashland stop.

I took a seat, several rows behind the only other rider, a man about my age, but tougher, more weathered, in a crusty black hoodie and worn, colorless pants but with a strangely well-shaven goatee.

All the way out of town — past Briscoe, past the hospital, out into the countryside — the man menaced me, looking over his shoulder, throwing punches in the air in front of him, making choking motions with his hands and shaking his head like a boxer before round one. He leered over his shoulder at me several times while I pretended not to notice.

We left the city and started down the hill. The driver said, "Valley View," and the man pulled the stop signal. He exited the back door, grinning full in my face on the way. He was taller than me, lankier, with more tattoos. I let the door slam shut and he immediately turned and started shouting up at me through the bus windows. I walked to the front and told the driver I wanted the next stop instead, 50 yards up the road. "That guy was menacing me," I told the driver, whom I see often.

He let me off just after the Valley View intersection, and I had enough of a lead to cross the bridge while my pursuer, still shouting, was delayed on the other side of the street by the rush hour traffic. I hustled to the break in the railing, calling my roommate so I had a connection to someone — anyone. That was 6:17 p.m. I hustled up Valley View, grateful for the traffic, as the man followed about 40 yards behind me, still shouting and gesticulating angrily. I watched over my shoulder as he entered the bushes by the well-worn path just above the Greenway.

It would be easy for me to complain about the local homeless problem now. Problem is, I too have been homeless many times over 15 years in the minimum-wage sector before college, and probably 40 percent of the time I was in school earning two bachelor's and a master's degree.

I too own and wear a black punk-rock hoodie on occasion. I have also been a vocal advocate of tolerance toward people who struggle against what most of us see as one of the worst things that could happen to us. Nor is this my first encounter with street violence.

But I have a problem now: How do I get home at night without getting mugged? The police can't do anything until the man commits a crime, a violent one, against me, and bringing them in will give him even more reason to follow me home and pay me back. I could resort to frontier justice and go stomp down their camp with my college buddies, but I have also advocated nonviolence as a professional activist here for more than five years.

What the encounter really put into perspective is that Ashland's problem with panhandlers downtown, a relatively populated area with nearby police, looks a little closer to manageable when you have an angry scary person stalking you through the dark fields down by the river, with no way to tell when they will be waiting there again. We need to focus less on the cosmetic issue of people hanging around in the plaza and focus on the real dangers of living in these spaces. I'm a grown man: What if you're runaway teenager was on the street out here?

UPDATE: I submitted this article Saturday and Tuesday the same man menaced me on the street, but with two pit bulls in tow this time, in full daylight. I called 9-1-1 this time and the deputy sheriff called me back some time later, told me there was nothing he could do until a crime had been committed, but that he would go talk to the man down in the bushes by the bridge. I'm grateful for that, but I guess I'll be taking a cab home instead of the bus tonight.

Steve Ryan has lived in Ashland for more than five years. He is a former member of the Ashland Bicycle and Pedestrian Commission and former candidate for the Rogue Valley Transportation District board of directors. He holds three degrees from Southern Oregon University.

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