Homeless protests continue with Art Walk exhibit

Holding hand-painted cardboard signs, Ashland homeless residents continued their protest of recent police citations for the fifth day at Friday's Art Walk, drawing support from some locals and leading others to avoid the monthly event.

"This is our art," said participant Critter Satellite Friday evening. "I brought out a can of paint at about 10 a.m. and we made the signs and we've been protesting since."

About 25 protesters held signs that read "Sleep is a right, not a privilege," "Homeless but human," "It could happen to you," and "What would God do?" Similar messages were written in chalk on the plaza's sidewalks.

A handful of supporters stopped by the protest, offering T-shirts, blankets and food. Some of them signed a petition the protesters are circulating that asks the city to create a free campground for homeless people.

"They asked me, 'What are you doing down here?'" said Thomas Marr, who owns a home in Ashland but is participating in the protest. "I said, 'If I don't stand up for you, who's going to stand up for me when something happens?'"

The protest also caused some locals to stay away from the plaza and Art Walk Friday.

"It's going to hurt business," Phil Cardinal, a Gold Hill resident said Friday. "A lot less people are going to go to the Art Walk tonight. I know I'm not going."

Since Monday, as many as 40 homeless residents have been protesting recent police citations for illegal camping. They have said they intend to continue their protest until they can work out an agreement with the city that involves having a legal place to sleep in Ashland.

Mayor John Stromberg plans to meet Thursday with Ashland Police Chief Terry Holderness and Aaron Reed, a Community Works homeless advocate, to try to resolve the situation.

City Councilman Eric Navickas, another homeless advocate, requested late Thursday that the council discuss reforming the city's camping ban at its Tuesday meeting. Although the item won't be on the meeting's agenda, Navickas expects the council to discuss it, he said Friday. The 7 p.m. meeting will be held in the Ashland Civic Center Council Chambers, 1175 E. Main St.

Police have issued 12 citations for illegal camping or trespassing in the downtown area since the protests began. As of Friday evening, none of the protesters had been taken to jail because they had all agreed to move after being cited, police said.

Officers cited Marr Friday morning for illegal camping after he set up a tent he said was part of the protest. The citation ignited a debate over where the city should draw the line between camping and protesting.

Marr began setting up a tent in the plaza at about 7 a.m. and was cited shortly after, he said.

Police Chief Terry Holderness said officers follow city and state laws that define illegal camping as the setting up of a campsite, which can include tents, sleeping bags or camping stoves.

"If you set up a campsite — if it appears to the officer to be a campsite — then we'll cite you," he said Friday. "If you're setting up a campsite, you're in violation of a city ordinance."

However, Marr said he feels he should have been allowed to pitch his tent in the plaza as part of his protest. Marr, who serves on the steering committee of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, said he was not intending to camp.

"I'm very upset and I am contacting a constitutional lawyer," he said Friday. "It's the right to assemble, the right to protest, the right to free speech."

The prohibited camping ticket was Marr's second. He received his first citation early Wednesday when he spent the night in a tent in the plaza alongside a group of about 25 homeless residents who were protesting recent police citations for camping in Ashland's forests.

Marr said he intended to spend Friday night in the plaza again, in protest.

"I'm hoping not to get further ticketed," he said. "But they can take me to jail — I'm ready. I'm really getting sick of it."

Several campers, including Marr, have reported that police officers kicked them and yelled obscenities at them before issuing them citations this week.

"I've been lied to, cursed at and kicked, by police," he said. "There are a lot of witnesses."

However, Holderness said that as far as he is aware the officers have been professional and that the cursing has come from the protesters

"I was there for most of the night the first night and there was a lot of cursing and obscenities, and none of it was coming from the officers," he said. "I didn't see any officers act unprofessionally."

After pitching tents in the plaza for three nights and being cited multiple times for illegal camping, most of the protesters spent Thursday night elsewhere and returned to the plaza Friday morning to protest. They said they planned to continue their protest throughout the weekend.

"We don't want it to be us-versus-them, we just want to make our statement," said participant Veronica Michaels. "We're trying to get a solution here. We just want some place where we can pitch our tents without getting ticketed."

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

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