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Council Corner: Thinking out loud about transients

As different elements of our community work on ways of dealing with the behavior problems we experienced this past visitor season, the natural focus of the city's efforts is on laws and enforcement. However, there are limitations to that approach: Laws can stimulate gaming the system on the part of the persons they're intended to affect; we operate within the framework of strong civil liberties provisions of both the U.S. and the Oregon constitutions; and our Police Department is currently short-staffed, with little hope of resolving the problem by the start, or even the duration, of the 2016 visitor season.

So I've been thinking about other ways the city could address the problem. None of these have been approved by staff, nor have I run them by the councilors but, in the interests of transparency and community collaboration, see what you think:

  • What if we finally gave busker zones a try? Taking a page from Stratford, Ontario, we would mark out, say, six zones around the downtown that buskers could use for one or two hours and then give up to the next person/group. There would be a simple sign-up sheet, first come first served, and we'd let the market prioritize who took advantage of the opportunity. So what are the benefits? Well, it might create a little more sense of order in our downtown public spaces, encourage better quality music and draw more locals to these areas. (I believe in the idea that the more we inhabit our public spaces the less mischief occurs in them.)
  • What if we provided kennels for dogs near the Plaza and the entrance to Lithia Park? I'm imagining something similar to the simple, basic ones St. Vincent De Paul uses at its Medford facility. Benefits? A secure, shaded place with water, on the one hand, and reducing the number of dogs lying on the sidewalk.
  • What if we established one place in the downtown area where street people could sell their wares? This would encourage those who are actually trying to work and reduce the enforcement load on our police and cadets.
  • What if we allowed chalk drawing in a designated part of the Plaza? Again, this could involve people in a more productive activity than sitting stoned with a cardboard sign. Also it could brighten up the pavers ...

These ideas in turn open up more engagement: for instance, a Friday night busker competition with prizes, a similar chalk art competition on weekends, and the kennels might be a good connecting point for street dogs and/or our vaccination programs.

All these examples are intended to draw street people into more positive activities and make them more part of the community rather than apart from it. If we couple this approach with an outreach worker downtown who could connect youth, vets and those in need of mental health care with resources that are currently available, we might further reduce aimless hanging out in our public spaces. (The county is currently working to establish a mental health facility in town.)

I realize these options probably would have no direct effect on the hard-core individuals and groups that have been acting in a disruptive and disrespectful way, but it might change the environment surrounding them.

And before I end, here are a couple of other possibilities we might entertain:

  • Eugene has developed a clever way of allowing people to sleep in their cars overnight that doesn't take a lot of public resources. Maybe we could give preference to parents with children.
  • Perhaps someone, not necessarily the city, could connect residents who needed basic jobs done with visitors who wanted a chance both to earn money and to work. They say the isolation of being homeless — whether local or transient — is especially demoralizing and sets up tensions with the community.

While none of these ideas is original, maybe now is the time to try them. What interests me is that they draw visitors/transients/street people into relationship with our community via activities that are positive for them and for us.

Let me know what you think: john@council.ashland.or.us.

John Stromberg is mayor of Ashland.