Which Ashland do you want?

One notion of Ashland is a clean and pleasant place, whose natural beauty will not be marred by social ugliness. People who offend our sensibilities get removed from our downtown to—well, to somewhere else. This Ashland caters to tourists offended by homeless people, but not to tourists who want all their Shakespeare in Elizabethan dress.

Another idea of Ashland recognizes that we have our share of people in distress, especially now because of the recession. While seeking ways to help as many as possible climb out of poverty, compassion moves us to provide some basic sustenance to those most needy. But destitution isn't pretty, and trying to hide it has little virtue. If some tourists don't want to see homelessness in Ashland, well, they might not come back — except that the data show them returning in droves.

The city of Ashland has done almost nothing about homelessness. Debating why and how to do better is a subject for another day. Meanwhile, however, our City Council seems hot to enact an exclusionary ordinance.

The rhetorical cloud around this ordinance clearly is not about crime. The complaints that led to the exclusionary movement express deeply felt emotion, sometimes quite movingly. In the Chamber's recent survey, 20 percent of comments mainly expressed generalized fear or dread.

Some bad things do happen, downtown and everywhere in our city. But the complaints rarely rise to the level of crime. Of survey comments, 32 percent are about speech acts — mostly First Amendment protected, such as calling somebody a name.

Some statements show blatant bias, such as a letter saying "if they don't wish to clean up and get a job, then kick them out of our beautiful town." Survey responses and letter writers don't refer to criminals or offenders. If they name their target at all, they mention homeless, transients, vagrants, or sometimes bums or hobos. One complained about "scary men," and one about "unkept people."

Failure to acknowledge and challenge this poisonous atmosphere undermines the credibility of those who push for exclusion. Claiming that this ordinance, as currently drafted, is merely about "persistent offenders" is highly deceptive. Do not doubt: It's about hiding the homeless.

We support the goal of reducing crime in our city. We met for many hours with police and city attorneys to understand the proposed ordinance and to share our suggestions for compromise. We could support an ordinance that tests, for a limited time, exclusion for felonies, serious misdemeanors and failure to appear. But, just as the complaints leading to the proposed ordinance fixate on homelessness, so do the effects.

Police log data show clearly that the so-called "persistent offenders" get cited almost exclusively for such nuisance behaviors as sleeping, alcohol (38 percent), and possessing less than an ounce of marijuana. These are the people Chief Holderness says he will be able to remove (displace?) from downtown Ashland within weeks of enacting exclusion.

People with homes can sleep and have open containers in their homes. Where are homeless people supposed to do these things? Targeting homeless people this way may be quite illegal. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in 2007 that a city cannot constitutionally enforce laws prohibiting sitting, lying, or sleeping in public places if it does not provide adequate shelters for the destitute. Even if that decision isn't legal precedent for us, surely our thoughtful citizens can appreciate the basic idea. Ashland offers no legal shelter.

What else could Ashland do? The Oregon Revised Statutes direct municipalities to develop policy "that recognizes the social nature of the problem of homeless individuals camping on public property." Exclusion makes no progress toward this requirement. Other cities have developed varied approaches both compassionate and effective in actually helping people change. Come on, Ashland. Is exclusion really the best we can do?

People who break laws should face consequences based on the seriousness of the offense. We could support the tool of "exclusion" if it were aimed at harmful crimes. But Ashland should not, as Councilor Dennis Slattery says, envision our downtown as a "living room." It is a public space. We can't keep people out for being uncouth or scary or different.

We support projects to improve "behavior" downtown — including rude speech — using more effective approaches rooted in understanding of social causes and remedies.

The ordinance currently on the table is unacceptable. It must not be approved while Ashland remains stuck in the mire, unable to develop humane responses to homelessness. It might be salvageable. We have worked for compromise based on common ground. Is our City Council open to compromise, or have councilors already closed their minds?

Sandra Coyner is a retired professor of history, women's studies, ethics and critical thinking and honors. Cate Hartzell served on the Ashland City Council for eight years and is in the leadership of ACLU-Oregon and CLDC (Civil Liberties Defense Center) of Southern Oregon. Helga Motley is a community events photographer and works with children. Leigh Madsen is senior consultant for High Tech Sports Therapy Associates. The authors have lived in the Rogue Valley for 17, 29, 32 and 30 years, respectively.

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