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Ashland to lease jail beds, add patrols

Ashland City Council voted Tuesday to lease two beds at the Jackson County Jail for $73,000 in order to keep offenders locked up longer instead of releasing them early due to overcrowding.

It also voted to hire four part-time police cadets to patrol downtown during tourist season for $25,000, and to spend up to $5,000 for signs instructing homeless people and tourists about what is acceptable behavior downtown.

The council did not address how to pay for the efforts, other than savings on gas, in their vote.

City Administrator Dave Kanner said that while the city had some savings from lower fuel prices to offset some of the expenses, it would be ill-advised to pull money from the general fund based on predictions of continued savings. He said it’s unlikely the city would use the jail beds every night, but said it’s not possible to predict the exact amount the city would spend annually to rent beds. The $73,000 figure would come if they jailed two people daily.

Councilors did not decide to hire social workers for outreach or ambassadors to act as a go-between for business owners, tourists and those who identify as homeless.

“We’ve done the bulk of the work,” said Councilor Pam Marsh, who suggested maybe volunteers could come forward to do outreach for homeless people.

Council postponed a vote on laws banning “aggressive panhandling,” defined as approaching people in cars, at ATMs or sidewalk cafes, where there's no easy way for those approached to step away from panhandlers.

The majority of people who spoke opposed the jailing and policing around downtown behavior, which would primarily affect homeless people.

Vanessa Nowitzky spoke about a lack of affordable housing, which leads some people to sleep in their cars or on the streets. “Leaving homeless people on the streets costs three times as much as providing people with housing,” said Nowitzky, who asked the council, “I’m wondering if we could use the marijuana tax to help homeless people?”

Her view was echoed by Komac Tapp, who told the council he often arranges to feed people in local parks. ”Many of them are on the verge of going insane because of this terrible law that does not allow them to lay their head down to sleep," he said. "The city of Ashland is criminalizing being poor. Why can’t there first be addressing the problem of shelter. That may be why there’s this behavior. They know the city does not respect their dignity.”

Mayor John Stromberg acknowledged that sleeping outside has consequences on people's health. “I believe that homelessness is a state of trauma, a mental health condition that can lead to other mental health issues,” he said. He urged consideration of a program modeled in the San Francisco Bay Area called “Streets Team,” which offers work to the homeless caring for public spaces in exchange for living-needs vouchers.

He vowed to approach other groups serving the homeless to create partnerships and funding.

Speakers who expressed concerns or fear about the language they report hearing and use of marijuana in public included Bob Riddle, general manager of Paddington Station, and Allen Gresham, a former Municipal Court judge. Both urged the council to create consequences for those behaviors.

Council will continue a discussion of new ordinances regulating panhandling and blocking of sidewalks at its next meeting. People who spoke at Tuesday's meeting will not allowed a second public comment, Stromberg said Tuesday.

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