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Group demands rights for homeless in Ashland

ASHLAND — A group of a dozen people, including advocates, homeless individuals and those living “home free” gathered on the Ashland Plaza Tuesday night to demand the city of Ashland immediately address the housing crisis.

Organizer Eric Navickas coordinated the event along with members of the homeless community in response to the ordinances, policies and practices he affirms have “criminalized the existence of the homeless” in Ashland.

Citing various codes and laws, they demanded the city open a site for transitional housing accommodations; invest in 60 small homes, yurts or cabins; repeal Ashland Municipal Code 10.120; enact a “luxury tax” on houses larger than 2,500 square feet to fund homeless services; provide emergency shelter when temperatures drop below 40 degrees, and fund homeless services by eliminating two police positions.

Ashland Municipal Code 10.120 established the downtown enhanced law enforcement area and legal punishments for repeated violations of ordinances against littering, excessive noise, dog control and licensing, and alcohol and marijuana consumption in public places.

The winter shelter is open but doesn’t have enough beds to handle all those who need a place to sleep during the cold season, Navickas said. Barriers to housing and dangers facing homeless people are exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, he added.

“What we need is the city to start taking this issue seriously and put it at the forefront of the political discussion in the community, and find ways to generate revenue to fund real services,” he said.

Standing in front of three tents arranged on the Plaza, Joseph Gibson, who has lived home free in Ashland since 2014, was eager to use a public sleeping demonstration as a way of asserting his right to a lifestyle choice. Whether homeless or home free, many people were not given a right to any other domain than a public one, such as property or shelter, he said.

“My ability to be able to sleep does and must be able to happen in the public domain,” Gibson said.

When Navickas reached out to members of the homeless community to coordinate the event, he said he encountered a general sentiment of frustration regarding a lack of available options, and enthusiasm to get involved in a Plaza occupation. Materials provided during the demonstration cited legal precedent for nullifying city ordinances that penalize outdoor sleeping when shelter beds are unavailable.

“These people are sleeping outside every night,” Navickas said at the Plaza Tuesday. “Now they’re just coming out in the open and sleeping in public.”

Ashland police Chief Tighe O’Meara said he was aware of the event but was not invited to contribute to discussion with the group. Two officers were present when the demonstration began. O’Meara said they planned to return only if there was an enforceable issue, otherwise APD would not disturb the group’s right to share their point of view.

“I’m all for more robust social services for us best engaging and looking out for marginalized members of the community,” O’Meara said. “I also believe that it should not be done at the expense of the police department, because one thing should not supplant the other.”

Speaking to a rift between APD and some members of the homeless community, O’Meara said community members are expected to abide by the laws set by the City Council and sanctions will be issued for repeated violations.

APD issued a 24-hour notice for all tents to be removed from the plaza Wednesday. O’Meara said there is no time limit for occupying the plaza, but posting tents is not allowed.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.

A demonstrator advocates for homeless people's rights and housing Tuesday night on the Ashland plaza.{ }Ashland Tidings Photo / Jamie Lusch