Between the law and a homeless place

This story won the 2011 Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association’s first-place award for Best Lifestyle Coverage. It ran on the front page of the Sunday edition of the Medford Mail Tribune on Dec. 12, 2010. It also ran with this sidebar, a day-in-the-life story on homelessness.

By Hannah Guzik
for the Mail Tribune

Joshua Scott unrolled his sleeping bag in Ashland’s hills and prepared to break the law. It was Monday night, but it could have been almost any night over the past eight years the 38-year-old has been living on the streets.

Nearly every time he lies down to sleep, he’s violating a city ordinance that prohibits unrolling sleeping bags, pitching tents or setting up camping cookstoves.

Scott, whose friends call him Zero, became homeless after a leg injury left him disabled. His injury and mental health issues made it difficult for him to find carpentry work, something he did for 18 years, he said. He said he’s been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Now, he walks Ashland’s streets with a cane, a backpack and cigarettes to “help calm my nerves,” he said.

As Scott was rolling out his sleeping bag, just down the road Tim Kennedy was climbing in his tent.

Kennedy worked as a roofer for 25 years in Spokane, Wash., after serving in the military, but was laid off in 2007 when the housing market collapsed. His unemployment benefits ran out, he lost his home and he packed his belongings into a backpack. He’s been homeless for three years.

Most days, Kennedy, 49, holds a sign on Siskiyou Boulevard that reads, “Temporary homeless vet / anything helps / God bless.”

“It says temporary because I’m optimistic about my situation,” he said.

Meanwhile, Stephanie Joy was scouting for a place to spend the night on Ashland’s streets.

Joy, 28, had a job as a waitress and an apartment in Orange County, Calif., but one day in 2007 she decided she wanted to live what she calls a more compassionate and aware lifestyle. She’s traveling through Ashland and has been in the city for the past few weeks.

Although Scott, Kennedy and Joy’s stories are all different, they agree on one thing: They want a legal place to sleep in Ashland.

“We need a place to sleep, that’s all we’re asking is a place to sleep,” Scott told the Ashland City Council Tuesday. “We’re not asking the world, just a place to sleep.”

They and as many as 35 other homeless people have held protests in the Plaza over the past two weeks against the city’s camping ban, and the police continue to cite them for camping violations and arrest those who fail to appear in court. The protesters are calling on the city to lift the ban during nighttime hours, at least temporarily.

“We believe this is a human rights issue,” said Joy, whom the protesters elected to represent them, along with Scott and Critter Satellite, who is 23 and has been homeless in Ashland for nearly three years. “We believe everyone has the right to sleep, regardless of whether they live in a house or not.”

An increasing problem

Homelessness is a growing issue nationwide, especially in Oregon, which has the second-highest number of homeless people per capita in the nation behind Nevada, according to a 2009 federal Housing and Urban Development report. Oregon had 17,309 homeless residents at the time of the count in January 2009.

Homelessness increased dramatically in Jackson County in 2009, according to a January report by the county’s Homeless Task Force. The county saw an overall increase of 15 percent in homeless people over the previous year, from 899 to 1,034.

There is no official count of Ashland’s homeless population, said Linda Reid, the city’s housing programs specialist, though the Ashland School District recorded 84 homeless students last academic year.

“There’s more than you’d ever know, because there are people who lost their houses in the mortgage crash and they’re kind of embarrassed,” said Daniel Rueff, who said he was homeless for 15 years in Ashland but is now staying with a friend.

Ashland’s homeless said they’ve seen their ranks grow in recent years. “These times are tough,” Scott told the council. “Everybody knows it, but we know it more than everybody else.”

Other communities are struggling with how to deal with homelessness. Portland has developed a permanent homeless camp called Dignity Village and Housing First programs that put people in apartments and then offer them resources to deal with issues and find work. Eugene has a program that allows homeless residents to camp behind select churches, businesses and city buildings. Seattle and Sacramento are trying to decide whether to allow homeless camps.

Medford has shelters and a program with a long waiting list that offers apartments to homeless people, provided they abstain from drugs and alcohol and attend weekly counseling and life-skills classes.

What is the best solution for Ashland? Should the city temporarily lift its camping ban as City Councilman Eric Navickas has suggested? Should it work to establish a homeless shelter or campground? Should it partner with local nonprofits to offer more social services?

Camping ban an invitation for lawsuit, ACLU warns

The Ashland City Council is scheduled to discuss at its next meeting Dec. 21 whether to temporarily lift the camping ban during nighttime hours. The American Civil Liberties Union has warned the city it could be vulnerable to a lawsuit because it tickets homeless people for camping in town without providing shelter.

Ashland does not have a permanent homeless shelter. Local churches open a shelter when temperatures plummet to 20 degrees or below, and First Presbyterian Church opens a shelter on Sunday nights, except during summer months.

The council is also scheduled to address homelessness and panhandling at a study session on Jan. 31.

“The community is gathering together around this subject and the council is going to delve into it in much more depth,” Mayor John Stromberg said Thursday.

During conversations with city officials, community members and social-service providers, four ideas for solving the homeless dilemma have surfaced: create a homeless campground, build shelters, offer more services and provide apartment-style housing.

Campground Catch-22

Scott and many of the other protesters say they’d like to see the city allow campers to use a portion of land it owns as a campground.

Approximately 25 people signed a petition Satellite circulated last week requesting a camp with a fire pit, no-frills bathrooms and trash cans. They said they’d be willing to pay a nominal fee, perhaps $2 a day each, for expenses, such as the pickup of trash cans. They’d also like to see the camp have a governing council and rules, such as no illegal drugs, no underage drinking, no violence and no stealing.

“What we don’t want is a lawless spot,” Satellite said. “We want the police to protect us.”

Police Chief Terry Holderness said past experiments in other cities have shown that homeless camps typically need to have strict rules, including no drugs or alcohol, to avoid problems. The Catch-22, he said, is that camps with strict rules usually have few campers, while camps with no rules are often full of campers but also full of crime. “You can’t have it both ways,” Holderness said.

While some might see a homeless campsite as a fire hazard to the rest of the city, Thomas Marr, a forester who supports the homeless protesters, said he thinks providing a designated area for a camp would reduce fire danger. “When you force people to hide and have a sneaky little fire, that’s what’s dangerous,” he said.

Early every summer, Ashland Fire & Rescue and forestry officials comb the watershed for homeless camps, because they fear a stray spark could destroy dozens of homes and the city’s water source.

But the city’s worst residential fire in at least a century occurred far from the watershed, near Interstate 5 in southeast Ashland, when 11 homes burned Aug. 24.

On Friday, John Thiry, a homeless man who was accused of starting the fire, was found not guilty of two dozen misdemeanor charges of recklessly endangering another and reckless burning after the state failed to prove Thiry was consciously aware of the damage that would come.

Oak Knoll residents expressed shock and sadness over Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Mejia’s decision and fear such a fire could happen again.

Many shun shelters

There are shelters in Medford, but Ashland’s homeless typically avoid them, Scott said. “A lot of people go into shelters and they go what we call ‘wing-bat’ — they flip out, because they’re not used to it,” he said. “They get paranoid because of mental issues.”

A large percentage of Ashland’s homeless population is very adept to living outdoors, said Ruth Coulthard, who helps run Ashland’s cold-weather shelter. Even when temperatures are in their teens, many homeless people decline to come to the shelter, preferring to spend the night in their tents, she said.

Social services lacking

Last month the city released a report complied by Reid that shows Ashland lacks many social services that help the homeless find jobs or housing. Since the Interfaith Care Community of Ashland closed its doors in April 2008, homeless residents have had no access in Ashland to counseling, housing assistance, job-search assistance or a phone where potential employers can leave messages, among other services, the report found.

“It’s become extremely difficult since the ICCA closed,” Scott told the City Council Tuesday. “Winters are especially hard. A lot of us are out here getting sick.”

Many of the approximately 20 homeless people who spoke before the council said they would like to have daily access to showers, laundry facilities and phones with answering machines.

Housing brings stability

Rogue Retreat, a nonprofit in Medford, began operating a Housing Plus program, which means residents are required to abide by some rules, in April 2009 with a state grant. The program has so far been successful and has a long waiting list, said Heather Hoyle, administrative director.

“Once they’re given stable housing, that gives them the foundation for looking for a job or going back to school to gain some skills to be competitive in the job market that’s out there now,” she said.

Homeless presence draws concern downtown

Business owners and tourists have expressed concern about homeless residents congregating downtown, said Katharine Flanagan, chamber marketing director.

“We’ve received numerous complaints both at our office and also from business owners, pertaining to the behavior, consisting of profanity, public intoxication, illegal drugs, public urination, dogs fighting,” she said.

Other residents question whether the city should help support people who may be homeless by choice.

“I question what this ‘home free’ is,” Nancy Boyer told the City Council Tuesday. “Is this a mind-set that our younger generation has that things are free?”

In the coming weeks, the city will continue to debate how best to deal with Ashland’s homeless situation.

Meanwhile, Scott said he’s collected more than $9,000 in illegal camping and trespassing tickets this year. The Ashland Municipal Court recently issued a warrant for his arrest because he failed to appear multiple times in court for his citations. Thursday afternoon Ashland police arrested him and lodged him in the Jackson County Jail. He was released that evening and he made his way back to Ashland to camp.

Tonight, Scott, Kennedy and Joy will unroll their sleeping bags on Ashland streets. They’ll climb inside, try to stay warm and try to sleep, knowing that at any moment, they could wake up to an illegal camping ticket.

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