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Council votes to pay for jail beds, police cadets

Ashland City Councilors voted Tuesday, with only Carol Voison dissenting, to lease two beds at the Jackson County Jail at a price tag of $73,000 in order to show “negative consequences” by keeping alleged offenders locked up longer instead of being released early due to overcrowding; to hire four part-time police cadets to patrol downtown during tourist season for $25,000; and to spend up to $5,000 to put up signs instructing the homeless and tourists what is acceptable behavior downtown. 

City Administrator Dave Kanner advised the council that while the city had some savings from lower fuel prices to offset some of the expenses, it’s ill-advised to pull money from the general fund based on predictions of continuing savings. He also counseled that it’s unlikely the city would use the jail beds every night, but even so, 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. 

The council did not address funding mechanisms, other than savings on gas, in their vote. 

They 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 on the homeless spectrum.

“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. 

As to laws banning “aggressive panhandling,” defined as approaching people in cars, at ATM’s or sidewalk cafes, where there's no easy way for those approached to step away from panhandlers, and criminalizing blocking sidewalks, public entrances and exits, the council postponed the vote due to the late hour, which only allowed time for public comment but not for staff reports and council deliberation. 

The majority of those who spoke opposed the jailing and policing around downtown behavior, primarily affecting those who identify as homeless, "home-free" or travelers.

Vanessa Nowitzky spoke to the lack of affordable housing, which leads some 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,” Nowitzky said while discussing options used in Utah and parts of Canada where the homeless are provided with a residence. She further 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 the homeless and hungry 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 in his opening remarks to the discussion also acknowledged the issue of sleeping outside and its consequences to 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 caring for public spaces to the homeless in exchange for living needs vouchers.

The program takes people where they are on the homeless, addiction or mental health spectrum and provides community and service work. He also vowed to approach other groups serving the homeless to create partnerships and funding. 

Public speakers who did express 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 these behaviors. 

The Ashland City Council continued discussion of new ordinances regulating panhandling and sidewalk blocking to their next council meeting. Those who spoke in public comment on the two ordinances at Tuesday's meeting will not allowed a second public comment, but others may speak to the issue, Stromberg said Tuesday.

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