Panhandling, homelessness are separate

On April 5, the Ashland City Council will be considering a number of proposals to deal with the homeless and aggressive panhandling downtown. One of these proposals is to create and "exclusionary zone" which would bar individuals with multiple citations from the downtown area.

I would like to suggest that the issues of homelessness and aggressive panhandling be addressed separately. Most of those who are without fixed residence do not engage in this type of behavior. And some of those who do engage in aggressive panhandling and other annoying behaviors are not, in fact, homeless.

Many of Ashland's citizens were attracted to this community because of its vibrant cultural life and most here share a concern for fundamental human values. A collaborative approach to problem solving is preferred to a confrontational approach. We pride ourselves in helping those in need in our community. Unfortunately, by linking unpleasant behaviors of a small number of people downtown with the wider issue of people not having adequate and affordable housing, we risk losing that sense of community in which neighbor helps neighbor.

There are many reasons why a person or family becomes homeless. The loss of a job or reduction in income can result in people finding themselves without a home. Mental illness makes it impossible for some people to hold jobs, and interferes with good judgment in making life decisions. Drug and substance addiction and abuse often accompanies mental illness.

And where do those with these issues go for treatment? Family conflicts can result in some young people leaving home without sufficient resources to secure housing. There are many reasons for homelessness, including the one reported repeatedly in the press, the desire to live "home free." The fact that some choose not to live in a fixed residence is being used as a reason to reject the homeless, their problems, and that most are simply neighbors in need. There is frustration among citizens and business owners about annoying and sometimes aggressive behavior, and these concerns need to be addressed. But not at the expense of demonizing an already disadvantaged segment of our population.

I would like to suggest to the City Council members that they display leadership by examining how the city can help provide resources to help the homeless obtain jobs and housing. Yes, Ashland has limited funds. And these problems are national and statewide in scope. But we are forced to address these issues locally, because they are not being addressed elsewhere.

Real leadership is trying to do what is best for the community as a whole while trying to find ways to help those who need help. It is unpleasant for tourists to be confronted with panhandling, but a more important issue for Ashland is to stand up and be known as a community that cares for its less advantaged, while refusing to allow a small number of people to behave in threatening ways towards our visitors and residents.

I hope that the Ashland City Council will examine how to assist the homeless in our city separately from the issue of how to deal with disruptive behavior by some downtown. Both issues need to be addressed, but they do not need to be linked together.

Stephen Auerbach, Ph.D., MSW, of Ashland is a retired social worker at the Veterans Affairs Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City, where he worked with inpatient veterans who had mental illness and substance-abuse issues, and who were often homeless. He is a member of the Ashland Citizens' Coalition and is president of the board of Chamber Music Concerts.

Share This Story