Homeless camps spur Ashland complaints

ASHLAND — As temperatures creep below freezing, homeless residents are finding creative — and often illegal — places to camp, leading to complaints from downtown business owners and citations from police.

Ashland police cited seven transients last week in four separate cases for illegally camping or trespassing. Homeless residents were found illegally sleeping under an overhang on Wells Fargo property, near the creek at Ashland Christian Fellowship, inside the Main Street Laundromat and under a tarp at the city's Recycling Center.

"It's always a bit of a rude awakening for folks when the weather changes like this and they realize they've got to do more than they have, that they've got to figure something out to stay warm," said Ruth Coulthard, organizer of a cold-weather shelter sponsored by Ashland churches.

The shelter opens when temperatures are expected to drop to 20 degrees or below, such as tonight, when they're forecasted to dip into the teens, according to the National Weather Service. It will be open from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. at First Presbyterian Church, on the corner of Siskiyou Boulevard and Walker Avenue.

The shelter at First Presbyterian also opens every Sunday night, except in the summer months, and on Monday mornings a free breakfast and hot showers are offered down the road at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 717 Siskiyou Blvd.

"This helps us to check in with people on a weekly basis so we can see what kinds of needs are there," Coulthard said.

On days the cold-weather shelter will be open, the volunteers put up signs in the morning at various locations in Ashland, including the Ashland Food Cooperative, Shop 'n Kart and the Main Street Laundromat.

The churches have bought some low-temperature sleeping bags and they are distributing them to people who sleep outdoors, Coulthard said.

"We'd like people to be as well-equipped as possible," she said. "These will keep people warm even if temperatures drop to 5 degrees."

Michael Harper, who is sleeping in his car and on friends' couches to try to stay warm, said transients often turn to sleeping on private or city property when they have nowhere else warm to go.

"It's a lot harder when it's cold," he said. "With the temperature dipping, it gets rough if you're outside."

When citing transients for illegal camping or trespassing, officers typically suggest other, legal places the people can sleep, such as the Medford Gospel Mission, said Lt. Corey Falls with the Ashland Police Department. The problem is there are no homeless shelters in Ashland most nights, and the transients often don't have transportation to the Medford shelter, he said.

"The problem's always transportation there," Falls said. "But I'm guessing the officers are giving them suggestions of where to go."

People caught camping on city property are often cited for illegal camping, while those found camping on private property are usually cited for trespassing, he said.

Coulthard said she believes there are fewer transients in town since August's Oak Knoll fire, because the fire destroyed several places where the people camped.

"I can tell there are less people who live outside on the south end of town now," she said. "That barn that burned up was sort of an informal shelter, and there were folks who camped in that general area, too."

Some transients have left town because they believe police are now cracking down on homeless campers, after it was discovered that the fire may have been accidentally started by a homeless man who was spending the afternoon in a dry field behind the Arco gas station on Ashland Street near Interstate 5. The fire destroyed 11 homes worth more than $3 million, making it Ashland's worst residential fire in more than a century.

"That's the perception it seems like people have: that police are much more aggressive and there has been a lot more looking for camps in the watershed and closing them down," she said. "Even people who have been around for quite some time have lost their homes, so to speak."

Falls said police aren't enforcing no-camping laws more strictly because of the fire.

"We're not doing anything differently than we have in the past," he said. "We've always cited people for illegal camping and trespass, and we've always had officers check areas where they've been sleeping. This is kind of a routine patrol for us and we get complaints about this all the time."

Falls said the department has received at least one complaint recently from an employee of a downtown business who found transients sleeping in front of the business one morning.

"The person came into work and found someone sleeping there," he said.

Transients sometimes try to sleep under building eaves to stay dry and warm, he said.

Although some of the transients who have left town have moved to nearby cities, such as Medford, others have found lodging with family members or friends, Coulthard said. The economic downturn actually may be helping some homeless residents find places to stay, because it has changed some people's feelings about co-housing, she said.

"I think in these difficult economic times, people are kind of networking with family in deeper ways than had been really accepted before," she said. "I think it's really common for families to be pulling together."

Hannah Guzik is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach her at 482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.

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