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A safe place to park and 'camp'

Three parking spaces sit empty but numbered and ready for so called “car campers” behind the Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship church at 87 Fourth St., Ashland. They are next to a small vegetable garden and a locked portable toilet. These spaces are for people who live in their cars and need a safe and welcoming place to park, sleep and function without getting a citation under the city’s ban on “camping.”

In 2015, 130 citations were issued in the city of Ashland to people sleeping in cars or any spaces that are not designated for sleeping such as homes or hotels. In 2016, 146 people received citations and in 2017, so far, 29 citations have been written, according to the Ashland Police Department.

“Camping” is defined as a location where any bedding, sleeping bag or any other sleeping materials are, whether or not they’re accompanied by a tent, lean-to or another structure or if they’re in a vehicle.

Citations cost around $100 dollars and failure to pay or appear can result in an arrest warrant.

“Car camping is part of the approach helping provide options for unhoused people,” said Diane Werich, who helped to orchestrate the parking spaces.

Because they are sanctioned on church property, car campers would not be subject to citation. And, it’s welcome news for community organizer Evan Lasley who himself struggles to make rent every month. “We want to expand protections,” says Lasley, speaking to affordable housing, but also interim possibilities for the unhoused. “We’re doing a lot of advocacy for this issue. It’s exciting to see how many are involved.”

“This is an activity which is part of our mission,” Werich said in discussing how the church worked through the process of insurance, discussing it with the congregation and the neighborhood. She says they hope to encourage other churches to step in and provide spaces as well. “If we have success, others may want to do it.”

The car camping spaces include the amenity of being able to go into the church in the morning for coffee and cookies and the use of the regular bathroom for washing up.

“We just got an RV and we still can’t afford space rent," says Ashland resident Brittany Swartz. "It’s nearly 600 per month with no amenities, plus an equal deposit. It sucks. We just park where we can.”

“Car camping is part of the approach helping provide options for unhoused people,” Werich says.

Werich says the spaces are especially vital for women and children as the city of Ashland provides no shelters, emergency or otherwise, for families, even in the winter. “We’re really looking for women and children. The adults have some designated places, but there isn’t a place for children.”

The Unitarian Universalist Church is the only house of worship so far offering such an arrangement, but the interfaith council in Ashland is looking at this as part of its goals going forward.

Werich discussed the car spaces during a Saturday meeting at the church for a group creating options for affordable housing and tenants rights. “Many people are doing a lot of advocacy for this issue,” she said. “It’s exciting to see how many are involved locally and also working at a state level as part of an organic movement.”

As of this moment, the church does not have any campers using the spaces. “We had a mother and child here but they got housed,” said Werich. She said they'd love to have that “problem” any time of families being housed almost right away.

If this is a service you might need or know someone who does, there are three spaces available. The Universalist Unitarian Church is open to discussing the rules and the spaces to those who need it. Werich suggests coming by or contacting the office for more information.

—Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at julieanneakins@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.