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Downtown behavior issues dominate council agenda

“Downtown behavior” and other issues surrounding the homeless, "home-free" and traveling populations in downtown Ashland will consume the bulk of the city’s business at their meeting Tuesday, March 15. 

The council will once again consider funding options for some ideas under consideration, such as hiring cadets to assist police during the busy summer tourist season, hiring social workers to interface with those who sleep outside and busk or lounge downtown during the day to direct them toward services and solutions should they express having problems, and the concept of hiring “ambassadors” to also help tourists and small business owners with any questions or dilemmas which may arise. 

Also on the agenda are enacting laws to make blocking sidewalks, exits and entrances to publicly accessible spaces for any length of time beyond a few minutes, an offense worthy of citation if there is a purposeful intention not to move after being asked. They’ll also consider a new law which would make “aggressive panhandling” illegal. “Aggressive” would be defined as approaching people while sitting in cars, at ATM’s or sitting at sidewalk cafes where they cannot easily walk away from the person requesting money. 

Holding a sign, asking for money or busking, the city attorney, Dave Lohman advises, would not be illegal nor is it illegal to be downtown so long as one is not breaking any other laws. Lohman made it clear to the council and the public in recent hearings that First Amendment rights preclude making panhandling illegal as it is protected speech. He also told the council that all new rules must be applied equally so that if a group of tourists are gathered and blocking sidewalks or entrances and exits, they too must be warned, and if they fail to move, they must also be cited. 

The discussion and rules about how the city of Ashland wants to consider the homeless has been discussed for years, but this new wave results from allegations around reports of aggressive panhandling and downtown behavior which includes alleged verbal assaults on people passing by groups of panhandlers on public sidewalks and in front of the downtown Chamber of Commerce office on the corner of Main and Pioneer streets. 

In addition to the options of hiring staff and making ordinances stricter, Mayor John Stromberg, Councillors Pam Marsh, Carol Voison and Mike Morris have attended listening sessions and informational meetings regarding other options to engage members of the homeless, "home-free" and travelers groups. The meetings discussed solutions to downtown tensions, inviting both those who identify along the spectrum of homelessness and members of the public, including business owners and residents. Among options being considered is incorporation of a “Streets Team” model currently being used in the San Francisco Bay Area which creates public works projects for those wishing to participate in exchange for vouchers which provide services.

The concepts are not officially worded as part of the business meeting for voting consideration on Tuesday, but the options remain part of the discussion and are expected for future agendas. In unfinished business the council is expected to discuss financing options for addressing homelessness in the city of Ashland and it’s likely some of these concepts will be discussed.

The meeting is set to start at 7 p.m. in the Ashland City Council chamber, 1175 East Main St. Proceedings are cablecast live on Channel 9 (or 180) and streamed online at rvtv.sou.edu. For more information, visit the city website at www.ashland.or.us.

Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at akinsj@sou.edu and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.