The total number of illegal camping citations issued by Ashland police in 2017 has already exceeded the number issued in each of the last two years — combined. Through the end of October, the number of camping offenses filed with the Ashland Municipal Court in 2017 totaled 302, compared to 129 for all of 2015 and 145 in 2016.
Ashland, like many cities across the country, has banned sleeping in cars or on streets, partly due to concerns that littering and panhandling homeless people affect their communities' quality of life and drive tourists away.
Ashland enacted a camping ban in 1995 that prohibited camping on on any city-owned sidewalks, streets, alleys, parks and under bridges.
In the early 2000s, the number of citations for illegal camping ranged from six in 2004 to 30 in 2006.
In 2008, driven by concerns about the severity and constitutionality of the ordinance, it was amended so homeless people caught camping within city limits would be charged with an infraction, not a crime; would not be subject to jail time; and would not be subject to a fine of any more than $500.
Ashland, a city of a little more than 20,000 residents, is more serious about issuing citations than most. Since 2015, Ashland has issued more than 577 citations for illegal camping, based on the citations provided to The Tidings through a public records request.
Each citation costs roughly $1,000 to administer, according to Garrett Furuichi of the city’s Budget Committee,
The citations have a minimum court fee of more than $100 and failure to pay results in the bill being turned over to a collection business. Of the more than 500 citations written, 71 have been paid in full or dismissed. More than twice that number have been sent to collections.
In a smaller but comparable tourist town, Astoria, on the Columbia River in northwest Oregon, officers there have written two illegal camping citations in 2017. Astoria has about half Ashland's population, and its colder and wetter climate may also put a damper on camping.
Astoria Deputy Police Chief Eric Halverson says his department does not aggressively cite homeless campers, especially considering they often are unable to pay. “People sitting on a bench or minding their own business and not creating problems," he said, "we’d hope to see that.”
In Astoria, people sleeping and not creating complaints won’t come in contact with a police officer, according to Halverson.
“It’s important to balance between communities of people and think about things more deeply,” Halverson says, adding that they consider the right to sit and sleep as an important element to consider in enforcing ordinances.
In Ashland, sleeping in a car parked at the side of the road can earn a citation for those who are warned but don’t move.
"We know there are places people tend to camp,” says Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara. “Some citations are complaint driven, some are so obvious we have to address it. Every now and then we do sweeps through (Lithia) Park.
“Why laws are enacted is not my place to comment on,” says Chief O’Meara. “One thing I would say is the community has asked the police to address negative behavior, which does have an impact on downtown.”
Among the behaviors listed is littering, being loud and drinking or smoking in public areas where smoking is prohibited, as it is downtown. Sleeping in public has been associated with these other violations.
Currently, 43 percent of cities nationwide prohibit sleeping in vehicles, an increase of 119 percent since 2011, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. It says:
• 34 percent of cities impose citywide bans on camping in public, an increase of 60 percent since 2011; and
• 57 percent of cities prohibit camping in particular public places, an increase of 16 percent since 2011.
For those living on the streets, the increase in such bans means it’s harder to find a place to sleep where they're not subject to being cited.
In Oregon there are roughly 14,000 people who are homeless. In Jackson County, the number is put at about 679. The figures come from a “point-in-time” count where homeless people are surveyed on one day in January. The report does not break out the numbers by municipality. Homeless advocates say many more who are couch surfing or sleeping in RV’s and cars are not counted.
A Tidings review of Ashland citations shows they do not appear to target any particular age, gender or ethnicity, with the percentages of those groups cited reflecting the overall demographics of the homeless. Most are male (some 60 percent) and most are white (81 percent in Oregon). Of the citations given in Ashland for illegal camping, the vast majority were handed out to white males between 18 and 35.
“The people we see that are a participating part of the traveler transient movement tend to be young, white men,” said Chief O'Meara.
Nearly every citation was written in the downtown area in the area where East Main, Water and Granite streets and Lithia Way come together on both sides of Ashland Creek.
“Campers who frequent downtown areas as opposed to those that choose more remote locations, are in my experience, more likely to be noticed because of inappropriate behavior which likely would cause more police contact,” says city Councilor Stefani Seffinger. “I think there are many reasons for illegal camping and I do think that a woman and a child in a car probably get a different response than a transient camper that may be viewed as creating a potential safety risk.”
O’Meara says tickets are most often written to those who appear to “flout the law” by camping in exposed downtown areas, making noise, "littering" (which includes public urination and defecation) and continuing to camp even after receiving a warning.
Leigh Madsen, executive director of the Ashland Community Resource Center, says the demographics of those who get tickets has to do with the community view of who is worthy of help.
“We tend to think there are two types of homeless people — 'ours' and those who are 'not ours,'” Madsen says. “There’s a perception that these young men want to be homeless and don’t want to work,” he says, adding that he thinks there's more to it than that.
“Over half grew up in abusive homes, didn’t have a chance to go to college, are transgender or gay and got kicked out of their homes through no fault of their own,” says Madsen, adding that the cost barrier to finding steady shelter doesn't help. “In Ashland, you’d have to have three full time jobs to pay rent if you make minimum wage.”
Madsen says many get left behind, even those who really want a job. He adds he thinks citing people does not work.
“One of the guys consistently gets ticketed and sets up a payment arrangement but has no idea how to pay it,” he says. “There has to be a different way than applying an economic penalty to people who can’t participate.”
— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.