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Homeless folks protest Ashland's camping ban

The Rogue Valley Community Development Corp. seeks land to build a homeless campground

ASHLAND ' Waving signs saying, Homelessness is not a crime, some 20 homeless people protested Ashland's camping ban Tuesday and called for a fixed campsite so that they might not be subject to arrest.

We're harmless; we just want the right to sleep without being arrested, said William Hemphill, 40, who said he spent last weekend in jail after being found sleeping in Lithia Park. I don't understand why there's no shelter, when everyone knows the income of the city is unbelievable.

The homeless people met Monday with city officials and were granted permission to demonstrate and camp in the Ashland Plaza for two days and two nights starting Tuesday morning. Demonstrators were peaceable, chatting with passersby, strumming guitars and showing placards.

Meanwhile, the Rogue Valley Community Development Corp. is looking for land for a fixed homeless campsite between Ashland and Central Point, said John Statler, chairman of the group's Shelter Development Committee.

Plans call for a site near a bus line and outside the city limits of Medford and Ashland, which ban such camping. It will have showers, laundry and rain shelter. Statler said the group hopes to have the site operating within a year.

With the blessings of the Chamber of Commerce, Ashland banned camping in the city in 1995. Support of the ban was a reaction to aggressive panhandling that affected the retail business climate, said chamber President Dana Welsh. The chamber will review the current homeless situation at its mid-March meeting.

City Councilwoman Cate Hartzell said she argued unsuccessfully at a city goal-setting session for allowing homeless camps and does not expect the council to change its mind.

I don't want to start something I can't win, Hartzell said. The council felt a shelter would attract more homeless people.

Hartzell said she supports the Plaza demonstration as a way of opening dialogue on how police should react to the homeless. She said a protocol should be established that would allow for graduated responses.

The council might also look at Eugene's experiment of using abandoned vehicles for the homeless to sleep in, she added.

Police rarely ticket or roust sleeping homeless people unless they are being uncooperative, said Police Lt. Rich Walsh. Usually, the police talk with the homeless and instruct them that they have to sleep outside city limits but let them finish the night where they are. Campers are only arrested if they have outstanding warrants here or elsewhere, he added.

Jean Hallinan, director of the Interfaith Care Community of Ashland, said homeless people run up criminal records for sleeping in various towns, severely setting them back financially and then, because of their records, making employment that much more difficult.

These are good guys and they don't care to get caught up in money, so we condemn them. They need their records expunged, Hallinan said. They love this town like we do and have a right to be here. But one thing I've learned is this town does not welcome you if you show up with no money.

A few non-homeless people supported the Plaza demonstrators. Tracy Bungay of Ashland said she wants to see more respect paid to the homeless.

Why should we hide away what we don't want to look at? We've no right to push them from town to town, just because they choose not to have a home and a bunch of stuff, Bungay said.

It's an important model of compassion for our children to provide a designated camping area, said Shelley Elkovich of Ashland.

Homeless activist Daniel Richards, 29, an ex-Southern Oregon University basketball player, said he and a group of about 10 homeless look out for each other as they camp on steep slopes in the Ashland watershed.

Some of them are camping for months to cut expenses while they save money for apartment deposits, he said.

Cate Hartzell told us the council will seriously address the problem, Richards said. That's not good enough. Some of these people just got out of jail here because of camping. Necessity should not be a crime. I feel violated and robbed of enjoying this town and the cultural diversity that was here before the camping ban.

Ashland police officer Bon Stewart talks with homeless protesters Tuesday just before they stage a campout at the Plaza in opposition to the city?s camping ban. Facing the camera is organizer Daniel Roof. Mail Tribune / Roy Musitelli - Mail Tribune Roy Musitelli