'No Loitering' signs not solution to homelessness

    As a child growing up in the 1950s, I remember seeing official-looking signs on street corners, etc., which said "No Loitering." That term seems to have become passé in the decades since then, but it does seem to be applicable to the situation causing so much controversy in Ashland. Whatever happened to those "No Loitering" laws, or are they just a figment of my aging imagination?

    — Robert, Ashland

    By the phrase "situation causing so much controversy," we'll assume you mean the issue of homeless people in public spaces that is a continuing source of debate in Ashland.

    We turned to Ashland Police Department Sergeant Bob Smith for insights.

    " 'No Loitering' signs are not a figment of his imagination," Smith said in response to your question. "But case law indicates public property is just that — public property. You can't prevent people from being on public property."

    That being said, some communities have tried to restrict the amount of time people can spend in a public place for certain activities, he said.

    But a statement from the federal Department of Justice, coupled with court rulings, challenge the ability of communities to enact laws that criminalize common behavior of homeless people, such as sleeping in public.

    Smith said anti-loitering laws could be unconstitutional.

    In August, DOJ argued in a Boise, Idaho, case that laws such as bans on sleeping or camping in public places effectively criminalize homelessness when cities don't provide adequate shelter.

    In regards to loitering laws in particular, the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned several anti-loitering laws for being unconstitutionally vague, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

    Anti-panhandling laws can also unconstitutionally infringe on free speech rights, the coalition said.

    Smith said Ashland has an ordinance banning people from blocking or restricting use of sidewalks. A homeless person sitting or lying on the sidewalk could be violating that ordinance.

    "You have to leave enough distance for people to pass by," Smith said.

    Ashland also has an ordinance against camping on public property. The ordinance doesn't refer to sleeping, he said.

    "Sleeping is closing your eyes. Camping is putting out your stuff and hanging out," Smith said. "If people want to camp, they have to go outside city limits."

    A person in a vehicle or motor home parked on a street could be violating the ordinance if he or she is spending time there, including overnight, he said.

    "We try to be sensitive, but we have people who will try to take advantage," he said. "We generally respond to complaints of people sleeping in vehicles. We don't seek it out per se."

    Regarding the difference between loitering and trespassing, Smith said trespassing usually refers to someone being on private property without permission. Ashland does have an ordinance allowing it to ban people from public parks for a period of time.

    Send questions to “Since You Asked,” Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@mailtribune.com. To see a collection of columns, go to mailtribune.com/youasked. We’re sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.

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