ASHLAND — Police here have received twice as many reports of disorderly conduct downtown this summer as they did last summer, largely because of an increase in aggressive panhandling in the Plaza, the police chief said last week.
A handful of business owners and residents have expressed alarm at the increase in aggressive panhandling downtown, Ashland Police Chief Terry Holderness said.
"We always have had a certain amount of panhandlers but, for whatever reason, this year there are several groups who are being more rude and obnoxious," Holderness said. "When people don't give them things, or even when they do, they yell obscenities at them or make lewd comments."
Last year, between May 1 and Aug. 15, police received 18 reports of disorderly conduct downtown, and five of the reports resulted in cases, meaning officers wrote reports on the incidents and likely arrested someone involved, Holderness said.
This summer, during the same time period, police took 36 reports of disorderly conduct downtown, and 12 of those resulted in cases, he said.
A handful of panhandlers, many of whom appear to be mentally ill, is responsible for the bulk of the complaints, Holderness said.
Police also issued a record number of non-traffic-related citations downtown in May and June, mainly for drug- and alcohol-related crimes or city code violations, which include urinating in public or blocking sidewalks, he said.
Holderness said he's aware of the problem, but there's little police can do about most of the aggressive panhandling complaints, because there is no law against aggressive panhandling in Oregon.
He has increased both uniformed and plainclothes patrols in the downtown area.
On the city's website, Holderness posted a letter he wrote to a group of concerned residents earlier this month.
"We are limited by Oregon law as to how we can handle certain situations," he wrote. "There is no law in Oregon against 'aggressive panhandling.' However, panhandlers cannot be so aggressive that they violate laws against disorderly conduct or harassment. Unfortunately, simply being rude or obnoxious, which is the complaint we most often receive, is not covered under 'disorderly conduct' or 'harassment.' "
Panhandling, being homeless and loitering on public property is legal in Oregon, as long as people don't block others from walking down sidewalks, he said.
Oftentimes, police respond to reports of aggressive panhandling and find that no crime has occurred, Holderness said. In order for someone to be cited for disorderly conduct or harassment, the person generally has to be physically confrontational or be acting in a way that is intended to provoke physical confrontation, he said.
"If people are standing around making lewd comments or annoying people or being bizarre, there's not a lot we can do about it, unless they're physically threatening people or they're unable to care for themselves because they're severely mentally ill," Holderness said.
The number of panhandlers downtown appears to have increased slightly this summer, for reasons that are unclear, he said.
Ola Hijazi, who was visiting Ashland Tuesday from Lebanon, said the panhandlers made her feel uncomfortable and that she noticed more transients on the streets than last summer.
"I don't like it," she said. "It gives people a bad view of the city. There are so many vagabonds here, it's becoming like some cities in Southern California."
Mayor John Stromberg said he receives letters from business owners and tourists on the issue.
"I know store owners who feel like they're losing business or people who come visit and are insulted," he said. "Sometimes I get letters from people who say, 'I'm not coming back.' "
While Stromberg said he understands the concern over aggressive panhandlers, the city doesn't have much authority over the issue.
"It's an inherent part of our democracy that we tolerate people who do things that are not actually physically dangerous to us," he said.
Several business owners said aggressive panhandlers, who often camp out in front of shops on the Plaza, hurt sales.
"I think it definitely does drive away business," said Mitch Walzer, owner of Yummy Monkey Popcorn downtown. "I wish there was a solution, because a lot of these people need support. Although some of them are homeless by choice, a lot of them would like to be doing something else, other than panhandling, but there's not a lot of opportunity here."
Timothy Kennedy, who plays guitar for money downtown, said he started panhandling after a stint in the military. He said he doesn't like it when he sees fellow panhandlers become aggressive.
"It scares people, so of course they're going to give money, but it's not right," he said. "I'm just sitting here minding my own business and if people want to give me money, they can." He said panhandlers often become aggressive because they are desperate for money or mentally ill.
Dza Walsh, who hangs out with a group of homeless teens downtown, said not only do panhandlers make some tourists and residents uncomfortable — passers-by can unnerve panhandlers, too.
"A lot of times they judge us or say mean things," she said. "We're people as well and we try just as hard. This is the only thing we can do to get food."
Although some people panhandle by choice, Walsh said she'd prefer to be doing something else.
"If someone gave me the opportunity to do work, I'd take it," she said.