'Sleeping is not a crime'
Jason and Vanessa Houk certainly don't count themselves among Ashland's homeless population, but the pair intended to camp out on the Plaza Tuesday night in protest of the city's proposed three-strikes downtown exclusion policy.
"We have a home to sleep at tonight but we're here because we are concerned about the city pursuing this exclusion policy," Jason Houk said.
The Houks joined a growing group of protesters and campers who planned to occupy the Plaza in opposition to policy, which is being considered by the Ashland City Council.
The city is considering banning people from the downtown area for three months if they commit three or more qualifying offenses in a six-month period. After the third offense, they could be arrested on a trespassing charge and hauled to the Jackson County Jail in Medford.
The possible offenses could include nuisance violations such as drinking in public, illegal camping in public spaces, unnecessary noise and public urination. More serious crimes such as assault and harassment also will be considered under the proposed policy.
The Houks threw down a blanket on the plaza and intended to sleep there through the night. They did not expect to be arrested.
"I don't think the police will make any arrests tonight," Vanessa Houk said.
Ashland police were aware of the protest and planned to monitor it throughout the night.
"We expect a peaceful protest," said Ashland police Officer Theron Hull.
Hull said the protest was scheduled until 11 p.m. and then the department would take a wait-and-see approach. If protesters camped in the Plaza then the department would issue citations for illegal camping.
Former Ashland City Councilman Eric Navickas said the exclusion policy was not needed because laws are already on the books that will deal with crimes such as assault and harassment.
"This is an overreaction because of the occasional incidents that happen that are attributed to the homeless," Navickas said.
Navickas was referring to an alleged series of crimes by a homeless man who started fires in downtown in March. Police say the fires were started by Raymond Lee Wilson, 37, a homeless man who recently arrived in Ashland earlier this year.
Wilson is charged with setting fires that severely damaged many downtown businesses.
"The real danger in this law is the implementation," Navickas said. "We think it could encourage police to write tickets quicker to give people the third strike and kick them out of downtown."
Ashland police have estimated the policy would affect 13 people if implemented. The department determined this number by looking at people who had committed five or more offenses in downtown in 2011.
The department said the exclusion zone would not be retroactive.
Keith Haxon, who said he has been cited several times for illegal camping, said the exclusion zone citations for prohibited camping are intended to displace those whose only intention is to find a place to sleep at night.
"Sleeping is not a crime," he said.
Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.