City could outlaw aggressive panhandling, blocking sidewalks

When it comes to complaints about behavior by street people in downtown Ashland, one thing is clear: There are no easy answers. 

City councilors did, however, consider some possible new ordinances at their study session Monday, Feb. 1, which would address the issues most often complained about: aggressive soliciting and blocking of sidewalks and entrances to restaurants and shops. 

The Ashland City Council took up this issue in early January when complaints about aggressive panhandling and other behaviors ranging from rudeness to public urination came in to city officials and police. The city has been grappling on and off with this issue for years as waves of self-identified “home-free" travelers come to Ashland, arriving throughout the year but in greatest numbers in spring and summer when the weather is warm and more tourists with cash share the streets. 

City officials have repeatedly said they recognize the need to keep public streets, sidewalks and public areas, like the Plaza, clean and safe, while protecting the rights of everyone, including travelers and tourists alike. 

It’s not been an easy balancing act. 

Ordinances are on the books now which prevent some of the concerns raised, but do not specifically address people blocking public areas. Among the new rules would be an ordinance preventing lying on sidewalks and in front of entrances and exits. Another possibility would be to put a stop to soliciting people for money at ATM’s, bank entrances or while they’re in their car. 

The possible new ordinances presented by City Attorney Dave Lohman referred to other cities with these regulations and the results of court challenges to them, indicating they would be able to stand up to a challenge should one be made. 

Councilor Stefani Seffinger urged consideration of the sidewalk rule, saying “I think it’s dangerous. There’s no way a person in a wheelchair can get down those sidewalks if people are laying on them. I’ve also seen people have to step in the street.” 

City Councilor Mike Morris said, while he supports taking action, he’s concerned about the ability to enforce the specific language of the new potential ordinance, which would prohibit blocking public sidewalks “for more than three continuous minutes.”

“I don’t know how we can enforce this," Morris said. "What if a person moves over a few inches or feet, does that count in the three minutes? I just think it would be hard to enforce.” 

City Attorney Lohman also provided the council with a resolution stating that the city “desires to reaffirm and emphasize its commitment to the citizens of Ashland regarding non-discrimination and equal opportunity for all persons to use public streets and places.” He suggested the passing of the resolution, along with other other new ordinances would make clear the city does not wish to discriminate against the homeless or any particular group. 

Councilors also continued their discussion of previously proposed options for dealing with downtown behavior.

Through study sessions, staff recommendations and public hearings the City Council leaned toward three options: hiring part time police cadets to create a bigger presence downtown; ambassadors who could provide information to self proclaimed travelers, home free and the homeless as well as tourists; and part time social workers who could steer those in need of services to places for help. 

Councilor Greg Lemhouse urged the council “... to do something. It’s going to continue to just be pushed off if we don’t take some action.” Councilor Carol Voison suggested gathering more input from the homeless and home-free population, whom she claimed has not been involved enough in the process.

“They can’t always come to our meetings," Voisin said. "We need to reach out to get their thoughts on solving the problem. They don’t want this (behavior) either.”

Councilor Lemhouse pushed back, saying “That’s not accurate. We have talked to them.” 

In the end, the council as a whole decided to put the current rules, possible new ordinances, resolution and potential staffing plans to the public once again for a hearing and consideration. Councilors would then vote on a process to deal with downtown behavior as well as the issues which arise between tourists, businesses and those who are not homed, either by choice or circumstance. 

The exact date of that hearing and the process which would follow was not determined at the study session but a possible March meeting was discussed.

Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at akinsj@sou.edu and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.

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