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Car camping gets Ashland's blessing

The Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (RVUUF) allows people to sleep in their cars in the parking area behind the church. They’ve been doing this for almost two years and said they’ve heard a fair amount of success stories.

At the request of Councilor Jackie Bachman, Linden Crouch, Social Justice and Action Committee member, asked the City Council to think about implementing a city-wide program like programs in Eugene and Beaverton at Monday’s City Council study session.

Ashland municipal code prohibits camping, which can mean sleeping in one’s car on the street or in a parking lot.

This program would allow people sleeping in their cars the peace of mind that they won’t be bothered or asked to leave in the middle of the night with nowhere to go — not to mention the potential $115 fine.

Any organization could potentially implement an overnight parking situation, but if the city authorizes the program, it would make it more official and permitted.

RVUUF has modeled their system from Eugene’s model, and Crouch said it works.

“A number of people who stay with us have jobs and they look at this as an opportunity to collect enough money for a rental,” Crouch said. “First, last and a deposit can be a lot of money for people who have limited income, so this is a chance for them to save up.”

The church pays for garbage and a port-a-potty. They prioritize women, children, families, the disabled and ill to claim the four parking spaces in the alley behind the church.

Crouch said volunteers explained to neighbors about the program before implementing it, and they haven’t received any complaints.

The guests can park at 8 p.m. and are encouraged to leave at 9 a.m. when the church office opens. But they’re also encouraged to come inside, get warm, have a cup of coffee and a snack, and use the facilities before they go, Crouch said.

“For a number of people, I think it’s been an opportunity for them to be in community with other people,” Crouch said. “We’ve had a number of people find housing and employment.”

Guests are vetted through the Ashland Community Resource Center, then again by two members of the church. Once they’re approved, they sign an agreement saying they will be respectful or will have to leave. Then, a picture is taken of the guests beside their vehicle and given to the church administration, so they know who to look out for.

Guests are given the parking spot for 30 days and then the contract can be renewed. Crouch said there’s been times when a mother with children has needed one of the spots and so a single man has been asked to leave, but they were able to give a few days’ notice first.

Pets are allowed but waste must be cleaned up.

The spaces are small, so there is a limitation on the size of the vehicles allowed.

The council responded positively toward the program. Mayor John Stromberg mentioned that in the other cities that use this program, some businesses participate also. It can be a mutually beneficial program because it gives the person a safe place to park their car overnight and a business the security of someone watching the building overnight, Stromberg said.

“If we have three spaces, and other churches in the community could also offer three spaces, that would be 30 people or 30 families who had an overnight parking situation where they don’t have to feel that they would be woken up, or moved on or ticketed,” Crouch said. “We believe that once more people are more familiar with our program, they’ll get on board.”

Deputy Police Chief Warren Hensman said most police officers don’t issue citations for people sleeping in their cars, but instead try to find other options for the car campers.

“Anecdotally, I don’t know of many police officers who cite people that sleep in their cars,” Hensman said. “Most of our camping citations occur in parks.”

Hensman said camping, which is rather broadly defined, is a violation, not a crime.

City Administrator Kelly Madding said the council has two options if they choose to move forward with allowing such operations. The first is with a land use process which is lengthy, expensive and doesn’t have many benefits; the second is through a permit issued by the city administrator which is an easier and quicker process.

Madding noted that Oregon statute limits camping spaces to three or fewer vehicles; however, the word “vehicle” is not defined.

“The City of Eugene defines ‘vehicle’ as a car, tent, camper, trailer and Conestoga hut,” Madding said. There also must be access to sanitary facilities including, but not limited to toilet/handwashing and trash disposal.

The council unanimously agreed that this could be a beneficial program and gave the thumbs up for staff to move forward in working out details of how it would be adminstered.

“My sense of the council is that you would like the city administrator to proceed with this and bring it back to the council. Do it as promptly as possible because the weather is getting colder and we have people out there who can benefit from this if we can make it happen,” Stromberg said.

Contact Daily Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

An overnight parking guest at the Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Photo by Ann Hackett