Homeless in Ashland: Fines often ignored, go unpaid

Joshua Timothy "Zero" Scott was a vocal advocate for the homeless this winter, speaking out during protests and at an Ashland City Council meeting for people's right to have a safe place to sleep undisturbed.

At the same time, the 39-year-old was getting cited for the types of behavior — such as drinking in public — that have caused some residents to lose sympathy for the homeless.

Scott had the highest number of code violations — 35 — in 2010, according to a list of cited people the Ashland Daily Tidings obtained from the city through a public records request. Scott said in December his fines totaled more than $9,000.

Eleven people chalked up 195 violations in 2010. The same group garnered at least 25 violations and arrests in the first few months of this year.

Ashland police have expressed frustration that many of these people, who have few resources, ignore the fines.

Repeated citations have not stopped them from drinking and urinating in public, engaging in disorderly conduct and sleeping on public property — behavior that draws complaints downtown from businesses and tourists alike.

Scott was cited at least six more times this year for prohibited camping, drinking alcohol in public and having an open container of alcohol in public. On at least two occasions, he was cited for drinking downtown in the middle of the afternoon. He was also arrested for trespassing.

In recent weeks, Scott's name has disappeared from daily police logs, where it often would pop up multiple times over a weekend. Several homeless people said Scott went to Colorado.

Ashland Police Chief Terry Holderness said many of the people who are repeatedly being cited would have even more citations, but police know it does little good to write them tickets. For most Ashland Municipal Code violations, police can only write tickets, not take people to jail, he said.

Homeless people often ignore the tickets and don't show up in Ashland Municipal Court or pay their fines, he said.

"We have people who owe thousands of dollars," Holderness said.

Some longtime homeless people are even advising newcomers and transients passing through town to ignore citations if they get them, he said.

"A longtime person will say, 'Don't worry about it. Throw it away,' " Holderness said.

Ashland police persuaded the municipal court to start issuing "failure to appear" warrants so that scofflaws could be arrested and taken to Jackson County Jail in Medford.

"We spent a lot of time shuttling people to Medford. The person would be released, but at least there would be some consequence. They would have to go to Medford, get their property checked in and then have to make their way back," Holderness said.

But homeless people soon found a way around the "failure to appear" warrants. They started appearing in court in response to citations so they couldn't be arrested, but still would not pay their fines, Holderness said.

Holderness said allowing people to build up a backlog of unpaid citations could actually contribute to the problem of long-term homelessness.

He said he knows of a young man who owes the city thousands of dollars but wants to put his life back together. If he gets a job, his wages will be forfeited to pay those fines.

When the young man was getting the citations and not paying his fines, he may not have thought or cared about how that could affect his future, Holderness said.

"Now it makes it difficult to get off the streets. We're creating an impediment to people changing their lives and getting off the streets," Holderness said.

Ashland police have suggested an exclusion zone, in which people with multiple violations could be banned from downtown, might help curb bad behavior. Violators could be arrested for trespassing and taken to jail.

"It's important for them to be able to sit downtown because all their friends are there," Holderness said. "They have no job and they want to spend time with their friends.

"If we catch you downtown, the first time you'll be taken to Medford and probably released. The second time, you might spend two days in jail. The next time, it could be a week or two in jail. There would very clearly be a negative consequence for repeat offenders."

People who are arrested for criminal trespassing can be jailed for up to six months and fined $2,000, although that would probably happen only to a repeat offender, Holderness said.

Members of the homeless community said exclusion zones are not the answer. They said fines may not be effective against people with no money, but sentencing violators to community service might be.

The Ashland City Council has not yet decided whether to adopt exclusion zones.

The city already has exclusion zones in parks. A person can be banned from a park for a time — such as a month — for repeated wrongdoing. Holderness said that has proven effective, with banned people eagerly awaiting the time they can return to their favorite parks.

Several cities in Oregon, including Portland, Eugene and McMinnville, have created exclusion zones, city staff said.

If Ashland had a downtown exclusion zone, Holderness said people with multiple citations could still be allowed to go there for legitimate reasons, such as for a doctor's appointment or to conduct business with the government.

One young homeless man said he is against the idea of exclusion zones.

He asked to remain anonymous, but acknowledged that he is on the list of people with the most citations in 2010 in Ashland.

He said he has been cited for sleeping in an alley and for drinking in public.

He said he is an alcoholic.

"When you're living on the street, where can you go?" he said, speaking on a street corner. "I'm most definitely an alcoholic. But for anyone to help me, I've got to help myself."

He said he would like to see a jobs program for homeless people and others who are struggling.

He said his own employment prospects are dim because his driver's license was suspended, he has a record of problems with the law and he owes "thousands and thousands of dollars" in fines to the city of Ashland.

Although he plays the guitar and is interested in recording music, he said, for now, he is just living day to day.

Another young homeless man, who said he has been cited for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana and for having his dog in a park, also said he was against the idea of exclusion zones. He was not among those who had received the most citations in 2010.

He said downtown is a public place, and people should not be barred from going there. He said there is some problem behavior downtown, but homeless people often try to police themselves.

As he stood by a teenage girl playing her guitar on a downtown bench at night, the girl asked a passerby for a cigarette. The young man called out to the passerby that the girl was only 14 years old and shouldn't be given cigarettes.

In an effort to find a job, the young man said he created a resumé, got a cell phone from his father, takes showers on Mondays in an Ashland church and wants to gather his high school and college transcripts. He would like to become a glass blower.

He said he recently donated plasma in order to get money.

Another young man downtown with a bedroll tied to his back, who declined to give his name, was cited for one violation in 2010.

He said some of the people who panhandle aggressively and make lewd comments to people passing by actually live in homes.

"They come out every once in a while and show less respect than the people who have something invested in this area," he said.

The young man said he doesn't think exclusion zones are the answer to downtown problems.

"It's not Ashland. It's not an example of community," he said.

Showing a wallet full of informational cards about edible plants, he said he would rather see people with citations put to work planting and tending nutritious plants such as miner's lettuce, lamb's-quarter and daylilies in traffic medians and planters around town. He said perhaps a homeless person could be paired with an Ashland Parks and Recreation Department employee.

"If you had homeless people with three strikes do community service down here like cleaning up trash, they would be more likely to not throw trash on the ground. If you had them gardening, they would be less likely to throw beer cans in the planters," he said.

"They would feel a part of the community."

Vickie Aldous is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. She can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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