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Homeless issues topic of Ashland city study session Tuesday

At the bottom of the Ashland City Council Agenda for this upcoming Tuesday there is a sentence buried beneath consent agendas and unfinished business: “Discussion of approaches to downtown behavior issues.” It's a study session where the city council can see what city staff is considering after public hearings in December yielded heated discussion about homeless people in Ashland.

The “issues” revolve around the number of homeless people hanging out at the downtown Plaza, sidewalks and near the Chamber of Commerce office, and their behavior. The council communication prepared by city of Ashland staffers says the call for further action from the city council is, “prompted by reports last summer of increasingly aggressive behavior by people and dogs in downtown Ashland.”

It promises a newly minted ordinance from the city attorney to address “aggressive public misconduct” and operational changes by the police department.

There are six possible options expected to be presented by city staff for discussion at the Tuesday, Jan. 19, meeting. They include hiring more police officers to patrol downtown, renting more space at the Jackson County Jail, hiring college aged cadets, employing part time social workers or ambassadors to interface between the general public and the homeless and possibly placing signs around town about the best ways to deal with “aggressive panhandlers.”

All the proposals, except for the hiring of police officers would only happen during the tourist season when the Oregon Shakespeare Festival runs and none of them specifically deal with assisting the homeless except the social worker idea, but even that speaks to directing people from downtown to services away from the commercial center. There is no discussion of temporary or permanent housing for homeless people.

The proposal about signs posted around town suggests the city could do this in conjunction with the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, which is already creating a sign project instructing tourists on what they consider better approaches to homeless guys with dogs than giving them cash.

If all six plans were enacted the cost would be $370,000, according to a city staff report. Individually the price tag varies, with the most expensive among them being two additional, full time, police officers to patrol downtown.

The study session and discussion will happen after the council meeting ends. 

Before councilors discuss “downtown behavior” they are expected to approve the second two required readings of a marijuana ordinance. The council voted in favor of the first reading on Dec. 15. The ordinance allows up to four plants to be grown outside for recreational use and up to six for medical card holders. Proposed amendments, such as higher fences and restricting grows from certain neighborhoods, did not pass.

Another piece of unfinished business will be to continue hearing arguments about extending water service outside the Ashland city limits to accommodate an emergency fire line for an Alzheimer’s residential care home between TC Chevy and Lithia Springs Resort within the urban growth boundary off of Highway 99 at Valley View. City staff recommended against approval, but developers claim tapping into the existing water line on their property is much safer than having a 45,000 gallon water tank on site in case of fire. The Village at Valley View, a 44-bed residential care center, is already under construction.

The council business meeting starts at 7 p.m., with the study session to follow immediately after. Both are in the Ashland City Council chamber at 1175 East Main St. Proceedings are cablecast live on Channel 9 (or 180) and streamed online at rvtv.sou.edu.

Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins is a journalism instructor at SOU and author of “Common Miracles: Gifts from a Grateful Universe.” Email her at akinsj@sou.edu and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.