Sharing respect

Ashland police Officer Mike Vanderlip stands in the Plaza on a sunny Labor Day afternoon, explaining the town's rules to half a dozen transients.

No camping in town, no alcohol, no dogs on the Plaza, no public urination, no trespassing into stores if they told you to stay out. Yes, it's legal to be homeless and say what you want, but if you get in someone's face and start saying things that incite a reaction, you could be cited for disorderly conduct.

Everyone is pleasant and there are lots of jokes and smiles.

Observing the interaction, city Councilwoman Carol Voisin says the relationship between the homeless and police largely is amicable in Ashland. Police, who have a small post facing the Plaza, are quick to connect with newly arrived transients and will stand close by observing them if they loiter too long or are too loud.

"That makes them move along," says Voisin.

Voisin is in a group of "Plaza watch" volunteers, each of whom works one day a week in the summer telling the homeless where food, shelter and other services can be found and keeping a record of what happens with them.

Sometimes, Voisin says, she helps keep order.

"If they're being obnoxious, sometimes I'll sit with them and tell them not to do what they just did to me," she says. "It hurts Ashland, I say. They stop being aggressive, almost always."

Voisin, a member of the Homelessness Steering Committee, says the committee plans a public meeting on how Ashland police interact with the homeless at 6 p.m. Sept. 26 at the First United Methodist Church, 175 N. Main St., Ashland.

The gathering will feature Ashland police Chief Terry Holderness, who says he often gets asked why police are so mean to the homeless. He roundly refutes the notion.

"If you asked the homeless," he says, "they'd say we do a pretty good job. We do a lot of trainings on how to deal with them, and also homeless people with mental health issues, and treat them all with respect."

Holderness emphasizes there's no law against being homeless and says that police spend a lot more time dealing with homeless people than with the rest of the population.

"We get a lot of calls from people upset about them, but it's a legal activity," he says. "We spend a lot of time explaining the law to the homeless and the rest of the population. Mental issues are more prevalent among the homeless. They often become homeless because of lack of treatment and can become dangerous to themselves or others. A study by the California Department of Justice shows they are 28 times more likely to be victims of crime than the rest of us."

The homeless who live year-round in Ashland have been known to work to get money for food and will even do a little volunteering, Voisin says, such as picking up cigarette butts in front of the Chamber of Commerce and Plaza.

One local homeless man, Casey Lloyd, 18, says he gets along with police "pretty well."

"I show them as much respect as possible," he says. "They are pretty cool. If they tell me I can't go somewhere, I don't."

Lloyd adds that police "can be mean" if someone is mean to them, and once, late at night in the Plaza, he got handcuffed and put in the back of a police car.

James Erickson, 23, a transient from Portland, says he gets along with Ashland police.

"I try not to do something stupid. I keep the alcohol out of sight. They try to be nice to me," he says.

The presence of homeless people in the Plaza is a concern to businesses that cater to tourists, but the transients are there to get food, advocates say — from people coming out of restaurants who either give them their doggie bags or throw their food in trash bins.

Voisin points out the Plaza is void of homeless people during free meals Tuesdays at the United Methodist Church and Sundays in Lithia Park.

If Ashland wants to get homeless people out of the city's core, it must create a day-use center, she believes, where they can leave their things, wash clothes, meet social workers and get food. The City Council is working with nonprofit groups on such a project.

Holderness says the homeless have the right to sit in the Plaza, like any other citizen.

"We get a lot of complaints about profanity, rudeness, comments to young ladies, but it's not against the law," he says. "Oregon law defines disorderly conduct as a physical altercation, putting someone at risk, unnecessary noise where other people can't hold a conversation.

"You can't get in someone's face to where they feel a threat that might provoke a violent response. It's got to be pretty outrageous to qualify for disorderly conduct."

In Medford, police are challenged with a similar workload, funneling homeless people to shelters, sobering services, mental health evaluation, pantries and social agencies. They spend a lot of time rousting the homeless from illegal camps inside city limits.

"If anyone has contact with the homeless, we have," says Medford police Chief Tim George. "It's a constant with us. There are many people who depend on us for their safety and on our recommendation to gain assistance. We're really our brother's keepers."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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