Homeless problem disturbs Ashland businesses, OSF

Survey: Concerns include fear for people's safety and that aggressive panhandling will lead to loss of tourists

A survey of Ashland business owners on the impacts of homeless loiterers downtown found widespread concern for the safety of themselves, employees and patrons, and fears that aggressive panhandlers are turning away tourists.

The head of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival also sent a letter to the City Council this month saying OSF has been troubled for years by the impact of certain homeless people on the community.

"This is a serious problem that could affect the well-being and economic health of our community," Executive Director Paul Nicholson wrote in the letter.

The survey of downtown businesses was conducted by the Ashland Chamber of Commerce during spring break in late March.

Business owners reported they had been spit upon and their tires slashed. They said residents and tourists often are harassed by panhandlers when they walk through downtown, chamber board member Lisa Beam told the City Council earlier this month.

Nicholson wrote that while some people are trying to escape homelessness, others choose to be disruptive and tend to congregate in front of OSF's Black Swan Theatre on Main Street, where they often are under the influence of intoxicants.

They harass OSF patrons and employees, and intimidate people by aggressively asking for money, Nicholson said. This has led many people to avoid the sidewalk and plaza area in front of the theater, and some patrons have said they are reluctant to return to Ashland.

Nicholson said OSF is committed to working with local businesses, the city's Homelessness Steering Committee and political leaders to find lasting solutions.

Tensions about homeless issues downtown are rising as Ashland's busy summer tourism season approaches.

Additionally, a mentally ill homeless man is believed to have set a blaze that charred several downtown plaza businesses, leading to more than $250,000 in damages. Raymond Lee Wilson, 37, allegedly started the fire during a March 19 downtown rampage that police said included throwing rocks through two business windows, stealing from one and vandalizing a vehicle.

Some business people have asked for an expanded police presence downtown.

Ashland Police Chief Terry Holderness said he has one officer devoted to downtown patrol and regularly authorizes overtime for a plainclothes officer and uniformed officer to work the downtown area together.

Officers who are writing reports and records clerks try to frequently staff a police substation across Main Street from the downtown Plaza, he said.

"We put a lot of resources into dealing with problems in the downtown relative to the resources that we have," Holderness said.

Holderness and City Administrator Dave Kanner are seeking authorization this spring from the Ashland Citizens Budget Committee — which includes the mayor and the City Council — for an additional police officer. That person would devote 70 percent of his or her time to the downtown, with 30 percent of hours devoted to Ashland schools, Holderness said.

It would take almost a year for that person to begin work because of police academy and training requirements, Holderness said.

Earlier this month, the City Council directed Holderness to draft a new "time-out" law for possible adoption by the council before the summer. Repeat offenders would be barred from the downtown for a certain period of time. They could be arrested for trespassing if they return.

The Chamber of Commerce plans to install donation boxes in front of the Black Swan Theatre and other downtown spots. Signs with the boxes would encourage people to help fund services for homeless people instead of giving to panhandlers.

The Chamber plans to install the donation boxes before the end of May. Donations will go to St. Vincent de Paul, which has programs to aid homeless people and to help people avoid falling into homelessness in the first place.

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