Homelessness is more prevalent in Oregon than almost any other state as a percentage of the population, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The 2016 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress ranked Oregon 49th in the nation when calculating the percentage of its homeless population forced to sleep “unsheltered.”
The study showed 60.5 percent of the 13,238 homeless people counted in Oregon went without shelter on a given night. The others found places elsewhere, including homeless shelters, someone's couch, a motel room or vehicle.
The only state with a higher percentage of unsheltered homeless is California, at 66.4 percent.
The state with the least amount of homelessness is Mississippi, according to HUD.
The median monthly rent there is $724, much lower than Ashland’s median of $1,217.
Bonnie Cohen, 44, is among those who have adapted by living in her vehicle. She was issued an illegal camping citation in summer 2016. A homeless woman with a graduate degree, she lost her home in the 2008 banking collapse.
She recalls two police officers coming to her car, which was parked in Lithia Park. “They woke me up at 10 after 5 (a.m.)," she says. "I asked how many tickets had they given, and they said there were five other people in cars, but they had moved.”
Cohen says she had stopped there for the night rather than driving on because she was exhausted and didn’t feel safe behind the wheel.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever been woken up by a guy who has a gun, but it’s scary," she says. "Six people, not hurting anyone, sleeping, and they’re giving tickets.”
Cohen says she doesn’t feel safe in her car anymore. “It was the one spot that was still mine where I could feel safe. Now I have to ask people to put me up for the night or find other ways to sleep. It’s a burden for them and for me. Why is sleeping in a car dangerous for society?”
“Obviously the root causes of homelessness are complex and include many layers,” says Ashland City Councilor Stefani Seffinger. “Family breakdown, mental illness, drug use, post traumatic stress, a broken foster care system, low wages, disappearing jobs, lack of affordable housing, our educational system with increasing college debt are all areas that need to be addressed if a real solution can be found. I am sure the future also holds added stress that environmental change will cause with populations affected by climate change.”
Seffinger says the city offers grants to organizations working on the issues surrounding homelessness, but she adds that it's inadequate. “I know the need is greater than the services available,” she says.
The ordinance has not appeared to discourage homeless people from sleeping on public land in Ashland. The number of citations increased from 129 in 2015 to 145 in 2016 and 302 this year through October.
“Whether or not it’s working — I don’t know,” says Doug McGeary of the City Attorney’s Office, who is in the courtroom on Tuesdays when the citations are heard. “I don’t know if it’s ever been studied. You’d have to do a poll to see if it deters people.”
McGeary says that anecdotally, homeless people are talking to each other about the citations and, he says, “That’s a discussion that wouldn’t happen otherwise.”
McGeary says punishment only goes so far. “I don’t want to crush people," he says. "There is some degree of punishment, but we’re not fining people so that they leave. I just want them to obey the law.”
The problem, say homeless advocates and the homeless themselves, is that it’s hard to follow the no-camping rules when there aren’t legal places to sleep. “We try to direct people to places where they can sleep outside of Ashland without getting a ticket,” says Leigh Madsen of the Ashland Community Resource Center. Even so, he adds, “I would say the number of citations increases, and there are more people on the streets.”
Growing numbers of homeless encampments have led to municipal soul-searching in cities and towns throughout Oregon. Should cities open up public spaces to their poorest residents, or sweep away camps and vehicles that city leaders, neighbors and business groups see as islands of illegal activity?
Portland attempted a “Safe Sleep” concept in 2015, but the mayor had to rescind it within six months due to an outcry among residents after increasing numbers of homeless people showed up in and around their neighborhoods.
Ashland, in particular, has been grappling with addressing homelessness since a 2008 challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union that asserted the city provides no shelter, so therefore cannot ticket public sleeping. It was based on an opinion from the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals — whose jurisdiction includes Oregon — which states: “A city that does not provide adequate shelters for the destitute cannot constitutionally enforce against them a law prohibiting sitting, lying or sleeping in public places.”
But the opinion was issued in a case eventually settled out of court, leaving it with no value as a precedent, so the Oregon ACLU dropped it. For now, cities can ticket people for sleeping in public whether they have access to a safe, legal place to sleep.
Ashland does not have a permanent shelter. In the colder months (November to April), the city and various church groups offer temporary shelters five nights a week. In addition, the Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on Fourth Street allows people to sleep in their cars behind the church. But there are only three spaces there, and they must be vacated during the day. The city is also discussing whether it will continue providing space in Pioneer Hall, due to safety issues with the building and concerns about inappropriate behavior around the shelter, which is adjacent to Lithia Park.
There are no camps, permanent shelters or safe sleeping zones for the homeless in the city.
“Ashland is a small town, and we’re not set up with robust social services,” says police Chief Tighe O’Meara. “There’s no permanent place in Ashland. But if they ask we’ll give them a ride to the Medford Gospel Mission or a bus ticket.”
The city of Ashland faces a court challenge by Medford lawyer Bill Mansfield, who claims the city's ordinance is too vague to be enforceable. It is currently working its way through Oregon courts.
“Basically what they’re trying to do is satisfy the downtown merchants who want (the homeless) out of their sight," Mansfield says. "They talk about helping the homeless, but that’s not where their actions go.”
— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.