City gets earful on homeless issue

The Ashland City Council asked staff to research whether the city could be vulnerable to an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit because it tickets homeless people for camping in town without providing shelter.

The direction came Tuesday night after council members listened to ACLU Southern Oregon Chapter representative Ralph Temple and nearly 30 others — with and without homes — speak out on the issue of homelessness.

Temple asked the council to suspend the police department's enforcement of the city camping ban until it provides shelter beds.

Ashland has no permanent homeless shelter, but a group of churches opens a cold-weather shelter when temperatures plummet. The First Presbyterian Church is also used as a shelter on Sunday nights, except during the summer.

"Don't go out of your way to invite a lawsuit," Temple told the council.

In 2003, the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild sued the city of Los Angeles for its ban on homeless people sitting, lying and sleeping in public. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco sided with the ACLU and the lawyers guild.

Los Angeles agreed to stop enforcing the ban at night until it had built a substantial amount of housing for the homeless.

As part of a settlement, the court's opinion was vacated as moot, so the case is no longer on the books, Temple said.

When the issue of Ashland's camping ban was before the council in 2008, then-City Attorney Richard Appicello said he did not believe the city needed to lift its camping ban or build shelter beds because there is a shelter in Medford. He said Los Angeles got into trouble because of insufficient shelter throughout the metropolitan area.

On Tuesday night, member Eric Navickas asked the council to suspend the ticketing of homeless people for sleeping in the city. He also asked that the Ashland Housing Commission be allowed to go beyond affordable housing issues and tackle homelessness. Navickas also wants the city's housing program specialist to be allowed to spend more than 10 percent of her time on homelessness.

Joshua "Zero" Scott, who said he is homeless and disabled, told the council it's very hard for homeless people to find jobs when they can't get adequate sleep. They also lost mail, phone, shower and laundry services when the Interfaith Care Community of Ashland day shelter closed in 2008.

"These times are tough. Everyone knows it. We know it better than anyone," Scott said.

Several people said that showers are available only on Mondays at the First Congregational United Church of Christ.

"After the fourth or fifth day of not showering, who's going to hire someone like that?" asked Robert Fisher, who is homeless.

But some Ashland residents said many of the town's homeless are young, able-bodied people who are choosing a nomadic, "free living" lifestyle.

Resident Nancy Boyer said she has gone down to Ashland's plaza — where homeless people have been protesting the camping ban — and offered people jobs raking leaves.

"Nobody was interested in doing work," she said.

At the City Council meeting, Boyer said the room was full of cigarette and alcohol odors. Instead of buying those items, she said homeless people should pool their money and pay for a hotel room.

Resident and forester Thomas Marr said he opposes Ashland's camping ban, which pushes homeless people deeper into the Ashland Watershed, to the edges of town and out to Emigrant Lake.

Some homeless people said that John Thiry — who is accused of accidentally starting the Aug. 24 Oak Knoll fire that destroyed 11 homes — was pushed to the edge of town by police harassment. The fire started in grass and weeds on land where Jackson County doesn't require summer mowing. Thiry's trial is going on this week.

John Prowse, who said he lived on Siskiyou Boulevard, said anyone could become homeless and pointed out that an Ashland police officer lost his home in the Oak Knoll fire.

"I just threw that in his face out in the lobby," Prowse said.

Several homeless people said that some transients who were just passing through Ashland have been forced to stay as they await their court dates for illegal camping citations. Others said it doesn't make sense to fine people who have no money.

Duane Roe said he was once a licensed contractor, but he had his house foreclosed on during a divorce. He said he is dying of cancer and owes $362 in fines just for trying to find a place to sleep.

After nearing its mandatory 10:30 p.m. stop time, the council decided to continue the homelessness discussion at its Dec. 21 meeting, which begins at 7 p.m. in the Ashland Civic Center Council Chambers, 1175 E. Main St.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or

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