Ashland rousts homeless camps in watershed

ASHLAND — After being given 24 hours' notice, campers abandoned five camps in the Ashland watershed and city police and firefighters wiped out all traces of the camps, including fire pits and two pickup trucks full of litter.

The removal is an annual ritual, performed after the start of fire season, said Ashland Fire Chief Keith Woodley.

The homeless camps tend to be remote, carved out of steep hillsides above Granite Street and prone to erosion and soil sloughing, he said, noting there are likely an equal number of camps they couldn't find.

In their sweep, city firefighters extinguished one campfire still burning at Strawberry-Hald Park, a knoll surrounded by high-end homes above Lithia Park, said Woodley.

Campsites within city limits must receive 24 hours notice before they are removed, but those on federal lands can be removed immediately.

Crews have been removing sites in one fell swoop at the start of fire season for at least 17 years, Woodley said, and they rarely make contact with the campers who have abandoned their sites. When they do, the campers are usually cooperative because they know they are not supposed to be there, he said.

Joining in the operation early Tuesday morning was the U.S. Forest Service, which rousted one camper, Randy Dollinger, a 2006 candidate for City Council.

Dollinger said the rangers were "very polite" and gave him a ride to town, as well as a $100 ticket. He said he has a lead on a backyard near town in which to pitch his tent for the summer.

"We contact campers and explain the regulations and invite them to relocate," said Woodley. Camping is banned on city-owned property all year, he noted, but in practice, the homeless drift back after fire season.

All the camps visited Tuesday showed evidence of fires, which are used to heat food and provide warmth for campers, said Woodley.

"They are constantly in motion. It's not just a local problem, but a national one — and burning down the watershed is not a solution," said Woodley. "Fire is a very real risk in the watershed."

The issue of the city camping ban, passed in the 1990s amid much controversy, was put on the July 1 City Council agenda by councilman Eric Navickas.

In an e-mail to the council in May, Navickas said the camping ban violates the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment prohibiting excessive bail, fines and cruel and unusual punishment because it criminalizes homelessness.

In an e-mail to the council, City Administrator Martha Bennett said city staff members give campers information about where they can find support services, although the ICCA (Interfaith Care Community of Ashland) office recently closed, meaning most services are now in Medford.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Julie French also contributed to this story.

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