Interest spikes in homeless issue

For Shannon Northrop, a Southern Oregon University student who organized Friday's rally in support of a legalized homeless camp in Ashland, the idea of people sleeping under the stars on communal land and working the earth together during the day seems natural.

"I grew up in Hawaii," she said on Friday afternoon, as about 20 people held placards on the Plaza advocating for a "Community Camp" for Ashland's outdoor dwellers. "I'm used to people living this way. It's a wonderful experience. There should be a place where people can legally sleep outside."

But the issue is not that simple for Forest Service District Ranger Linda Duffy. In a letter to Ashland City Administrator Martha Bennett, Duffy said she had a "grave concern" about a homeless camp near the Ashland Watershed because of the threat of forest fire.

"My interest Martha, is that we maintain our steady, deliberate focus on our efforts for fire prevention," she wrote. "A camp compromises this objective."

Northrop and Duffy represent just two of the many opposing viewpoints that have surfaced since homeless advocate Randy Dolinger took City Councilor Eric Navickas into the Watershed to witness how the local homeless people live. Dolinger wants Navickas to spearhead a city-sponsored effort to create a legal campground not unlike the illegal version, as described in a Tidings article on April 24.

Reaction to the idea has been as diverse as it has been spirited.

Linda Rand, who owns a home in Ashland and walks her dog in the woods above Lithia Park, called the Tidings yelling after the story about the hidden encampment.

"These people are not activists," she said. "They are bums." Rand suspects the forest dwellers litter near hiking trails.

Komac Tapp, who organizes a weekly feed in Lithia Park called "Gazebo Grits" attended Friday's Rally to offer support.

"If we don't take care of our poor and needy we're not really taking care of ourselves," he said. "Society is only as good as its poorest members."

Graham Lewis has a unique perspective on the issue. As a volunteer at Uncle Food's Diner and President of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, he has opportunity to hear about the issue from two opposing sides. Uncle Food's Diner is a free Tuesday afternoon meal, and one of the larger social services available for homeless people. Some business owners are the most vocal critics of Ashland's homeless population.

"I believe a person has the right to choose any lifestyle they wish," Lewis said. "But they should live within the laws and not endanger anyone else with that lifestyle."

He said some homeless people are aggressive panhandlers, a major concern of downtown business owners.

Lewis believes if a person is able to earn their own keep, the American social contract implies they should do so.

"If you're capable of working but choose not to and collect food stamps, that's taking services away from people who really need it," he said. "It hurts society. Frankly, I think it's a form of stealing."

Tom Crimmins, who sleeps at a solitary camp in the forest above Ashland and attended Friday's rally, thinks of his as lifestyle as being more socially beneficial than most. He calls it "conscious camping."

"We're not people who trash our proximity, we care for the planet," he said, noting that the production and maintenance of all the homes in America causes more greenhouse gases than all the cars do. "If you talk about ecological footprint people who live outside are doing so much more for society."

Crimmins can often be seen pushing around a cart of tin cans, which he does as a career. He can fill about eight carts a week which nets him approximately $200. That's enough for Crimmins to live on because he doesn't pay rent or utilities, maintains a modest, vegan diet and, he adds, "I don't have addictions" such as drugs, alcohol or tobacco.

Ashland's Police Chief Terry Holderness is already well acquainted with Ashland's interest in the homeless issue, where he has seen both voluntary and involuntary homelessness.

"This community has a higher percentage of people who are homeless by choice," he said. "If people want to make that choice I have no problem with it, as long a they are not violating any laws."

Homelessness is not a police problem, Holderness said. "Ultimately it's a problem that has to be solved at the social level."

He said he is against any illegal camping on principle, even outside APD jurisdiction.

"My take is as long they are not violating any laws they can be there," he said. "If they are violating a law, they don't have a right to be there."

Police did not chaperone the small rally on Friday. Music played and grey-bearded, houseless men who live in the woods mingled with college co-eds. Most people held signs deriding the negative comments that have surfaced around the issue.

Jody Waters, an SOU professor who teaches a class called "Discourse Analysis of Social Problems: Hunger and Homelessness," held a sign as she weighed into the public debate. Her class deals with the "dominant or routine ways social problems are defined by society."

She said she can understand people's opposition to a homeless camp, but thinks Ashland often falls short of being an open-minded community when it comes to issues relating to homelessness.

"People are threatened by the idea of attracting more people to Ashland to live a lifestyle they see as parasitic," she said. "Even if you don't support the idea, which I can understand, we shouldn't show a lack of respect for ideas just because they come from outside the mainstream.

"I think the camp is a good idea because it came from a group of people in the community talking about it," she added. "It might not be the best place for it, but in principle I like the idea."

As she was talking, Jim Carter left Alex's Restaurant and Bar on the Plaza to offer a counterpoint to the rally participants.

"I think it's a terrible idea," he said. "Where is the pride. We're not talking about poor people, we're talking about poor behavior. They choose to take the easy road. They are just bums. These people need to stand up on their own two feet."

Maria Herbert, countered, saying, "Not by shunning them will we get rid of them. We need to help them."

Just like on the Plaza in front of city hall, the issued earned the attention of those inside city hall. Duffy's letter expressed her strong opposition to illegal campgrounds. Duffy criticized Navickas' involvement and demanded to know the location of the hidden camp.

"If this camp is within the National forest portion of the Watershed," she wrote, "I'll expect for the city to disclose this location so federal law can be upheld."

Navickas became apprised of the letter at the rally on Friday. Though he is non-committal about making a homeless camp a top priority, he does believe the recent attention is important.

"I think it's one of the things we should be talking about," he said.

He was adamant, on the other hand, that breaking up one camp would not help solve the problem.

"I was up there looking for solutions on how to reduce problems with fire, litter and sanitation," he said. "I think we need to deal with the problem rather than just putting our heads in the sand."

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 x. 226 or .

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