“I have to be somewhere,” said homeless defendant Daniel Fish in Ashland’s Municipal Court as he faced a $110 dollar fine for sleeping in his van. “I exist. I can’t help that. Where do they want me to go? If they tell me, I’ll go there.”
His case, heard in March of this year, exemplifies the plight of many who appear in the city’s court for illegal camping — including sleeping in cars on public property, under awnings or in other public places.
Court records indicate 576 illegal camping citations have been issued in the city of Ashland from 2015 through the end of October. Of that total, 358 were additionally cited for failure to appear when they didn't show up in court, 187 were fined but didn't pay and were turned over to collections, and 71 either had their citations dismissed or paid their fine in full.
The number of shelter beds is not enough to accommodate the homeless. There are roughly 260 beds for short-term shelter in Jackson County year-round. That covers roughly one third of the homeless population.
In winter months when temperatures drop below 20 degrees, emergency shelters open. On other, not-so-cold nights, they can shelter in churches or the city's Pioneer Hall on five nights per week.
Some would like to pay for shelter, but can't afford it. The median cost of rent in Ashland is around $1,217 per month. That’s if you can find a rental in a market with a less than 2 percent vacancy rate. A person making $9.25 per hour and working 30 hours per week, the average in retail, earns about $1,110 per month.
“We’re not fining people so that they’ll leave," says Doug McGeary of Ashland's City Attorney's Office. "I just want them to obey the law.” He says he would like to see something more innovative than ticketing and fines. “We could spend more time trying to figure out community service," he offers. "It’s not typically an option on violations. ... Is there a better solution? I don’t know.”
Creating work-trade options for the homeless has been a part of the city’s discussion since Mayor John Stromberg first looked at an organization in Palo Alto, California, called “Streets Team” a year ago.
It harnesses the energy of homeless people to do cleanup work in cities throughout Northern California in exchange for vouchers from local businesses for food and shelter. But it’s not cheap: It would take an estimated $300,000 to bring them in to run a program in Ashland.
That might be less expensive than the court costs of citing the homeless for sleeping. Garrett Furuichi of the Citizens Budget Committee culled through court cost line items to come up with an estimated enforcement cost of $1,000 per citation, meaning the 302 citations written this year would cost the city more than $300,000 when all costs are taken into account.
“We need to understand that homeless people who live here are residents and need to be treated in the same way as any other citizen,” says Stromberg in urging solutions for homeless people, as opposed to merely trying to move them out of Ashland.
Options being considered include increasing the city’s stock of affordable housing. The City Council has committed to adding to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, starting with a portion of local recreational marijuana taxes, in hopes more funding will yield results in keeping people from slipping into homelessness. But it’s a tall order. There are six affordable housing apartment complexes in Ashland, according to the Public Housing website. The wait list for Housing and Urban development subsidized housing is roughly two years.
The city of Ashland commissioned a study by EcoNorthwest to look at its housing. The 2002 report made the following recommendation:
“Develop more government-assisted housing. The data show a need for nearly 800 dwelling units that are affordable to households with annual incomes of $10,000 or less. About 30 percent of these households, however, are in the 18-24 age range and another 25 percent are age 65 or over. The data suggest the City could develop as many as 50 units per year for the next 20 years to address this need. It is unlikely, however, that the City will have the resources to meet this need. A more realistic target would be 10-15 units annually. Partnerships with other local housing organizations can help leverage limited City resources.”
So far the city has partnered with social service groups and churches to subsidize housing costs, but new affordable housing developments have not followed.
As to a permanent homeless shelter, that, too, remains elusive. Talks are ongoing about operating on more nights, but no plan has been announced. Vanessa Martynse Houk, who runs the Community Peace Meal at Pioneer Hall and the winter shelter at the hall, says there needs to be a designated spot for homeless people rather than citing them for not having a place to sleep. “A better system would be where we had basic shelter, even it means a designated camping site," she says. "That way the camping citations would only affect those who chose to be in that situation rather than punishing people who have no choice.”
Other suggestions include creating a voucher system for homeless people to use for space in a person’s spare room or backyard for tent camping.
“If anything we’ve seen homelessness increase, not decrease, so citing people for camping is not effective,” says Houk. “It doesn’t serve taxpayers to cite someone who can’t afford to keep a roof over their head. That punishment follows them and can sometimes prevent them from employment and housing. It’s morally wrong.”
— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.