Putting a face on Ashland's homeless community

By Sean Wolfe
Ashland Daily Tidings
February 27, 2003

Camp Plaza is closed.

On the last night of their camp-out to protest Ashland's eight-year ban on camping, some 35 members of Ashland's homeless community have gathered in the Plaza in front of City Hall to be counted, heard and peacefully protest.

Recent census estimates indicate that Ashland may host as many as 200 homeless. That number may be overly conservative - in part because accurate surveys are difficult to conduct on a transient population.

In the second night of their Plaza camp-out protest, several members of Ashland's homeless community took time to relate their stories and aspirations. What came from that is a more textured snapshot of the stereotype-defying diversity of the city's homeless.

For one, the community crosses generational lines. Some are homeless temporarily, others homeless by choice. What unifies the homeless is the desire to rectify their situation by finding a stable place to live, and to gain some economic stability in the face of the nation's economic downturn.

William Hemphill, 52, is the protester's most senior member. A skilled tradesman who has criss-crossed 14 states, Hemphill said what he needs most is to find work.

"I lost my last job two weeks ago," Hemphill said. "I'm a skilled remodeler - I know six trades - but in this climate, it's still not easy getting work."

He aspires to one day own some acreage and be self-sufficient.

"Two to five acres would be enough. I'd grow all my own fruits and vegetables, and offer land to people who are in a situation like mine. Just a place where they can be free of police giving them a hard time, and can live free and happy - like the Indians. That's always been my dream - to start a small community of sorts," Hemphill said.

Hemphill has had his choice of cities, and for the last several years has chosen Ashland as his home. He has been able to secure work by appearing on job lines alongside members of the Hispanic community looking for day labor. He was inspired to come to Ashland by the works of Neale Donald Walsch - the successful author of the popular "Conversations with God" books, who also makes his home in Ashland.

"I've been able to make a living, bit by bit, but in this economy work is hard to find. I used to make $9 an hour, but that was when I had all my own tools. Without a place to keep your tools, it's hard to get that wage anymore. But I still have the skills - framing, drywall, etcetera," Hemphill said.

"Maybe someone will read this and hire me. I can be contacted through the (Interfaith Care Community of Ashland)," Hemphill chuckled.

At the other end of the age spectrum, Dustin Hartzell, 18, said he has been homeless for the past seven months.

He said conflict with his step-parents led to his being arrested by police for multiple counts of assault, charges he denied were justified.

His problems started after moving from Portland to Medford. His father and stepmother housed him in a shed outside of the house, and pressured him to live a Christian life.

"I wasn't a bad kid, just not what they wanted me to be," Hartzell said.

"They wanted me to be a Christian boy, go to church - and I was more counter-culture, into my own thing."

According to Hartzell, domestic violence in the home led to problems in concentrating at school. Following a fracas with his father and stepmother, Hartzell said they contacted the police, who arrested him, and kept him in a Jackson County Juvenile facility for over eight months.

"What's funny about it is that I didn't hit anyone. I was the one who got hit. I had a goose egg on my face, but no one listened," Hartzell said.

After being released, Hartzell said he got a food service job, and performed community service. Today, he works as a dishwasher, attends Ashland High School and plans to take his general education exam rather than graduate.

"In five years, I'd like to have a room, or an apartment to myself. I don't smoke, and I don't do drugs. I'd like to go to college and be a productive member of society - not for society, but for myself," Hartzell said.

Tex Lee, 28, came to Ashland a week ago. According to Lee, he has been steadily homeless for the past three years. Trained as a chef, Lee said he burned out, and has since traveled the nation extensively working security for concerts and festivals. Because festival work is seasonal, Lee said he's waiting out the winter, and occupying himself by turning up at protests in defense of homeless rights. His appearance in Ashland marks his fifth such protest.

"I got tired of paying taxes to a government I don't support," Lee said.

"If you pay them taxes, they just go out and buy weapons."

According to Lee, the hardest thing about being homeless isn't making ends meet - it's people that don't understand.

"You get drunk people, neo-Nazis, people that are messed up and want to fight. That's why you have to hang with a group of cool people. There's safety in numbers," Lee said.

Like Hemphill, Lee said his objective is to have a piece of property with "a bunch of friends." In the meantime, Lee said he'll continue to "make money, but on the downlow."

"You can make money in lots of places where you can't be spotted. Until summer, though, I'm on vacation," Lee said.

Council supports '95 camping ban

By Myles Murphy
Ashland Daily Tidings

The Ashland City Council is unlikely to lift the city's camping ban any time soon, with at least five of the six councilors agreeing that the overall homeless issue is too complex to heal with a single motion.

Councilors John Morrison, Kate Jackson, Alex Amarotico and Chris Hearn shared similar views on the issue, arguing that directing city efforts more toward coordinating and funding local social service organizations would be more of a help to the homeless than just lifting the camping ban.

"I would not immediately take the step of changing the camping ordinance in the city," Morrison said. "I really don't think it addresses the problem.

"Homelessness is a very complex problem. While it seems like an easy answer to say we'll relax the ban on camping, it's a simple response that doesn't deal with the complexities involved," Morrison said. "We might be able to take the lead in some ways in helping (the homeless) make connections (with social services)."

Councilor Cate Hartzell attempted to bring the issue up at a recent council meeting, but was met by firm opposition.

"I want to meet with folks, look at the array of problems and the array of solutions," Hartzell said this morning. "If the camping ordinance is something we think can bring realistic relief to a situation, we should look at that. It's not sacrosanct - we revise ordinances all the time. It can't be done without a conversation, but it's definitely on the table."

Jackson's take on the issue was more like Morrison's, and she also cited safety issues involved in allowing unrestricted camping in and around the city.

"In my mind, I don't think it would be a good idea to repeal (the camping ban)," Jackson said. "It's a public health issue with sanitation issues and the need for people to have an uncontaminated water supply."

"It's also a fire hazard," she added.

Transients camping in and around the city have been implicated in numerous fires over the years, including a fire in the Ashland Watershed in November 2002, and a fast-moving, five-acre grass fire in the Railroad District in October 2002 - a fire which resulted in a transient man being charged with reckless burning and second-degree criminal mischief.

"We need some other way to deal with (the issue of homelessness)," Jackson said. "With the economy in the bad state it's in, we have to look harder than ever at social service needs. As a councilor I'm willing to look at the city's health and human services plan, but we need some other way to deal with it (other than lifting the ban)."

Amarotico is on the same page - opposed to lifting the ban, but open to looking for other ways to help.

"I don't think (lifting the ban) is the answer, that's for sure," he said. "We should continue to support groups like the ICCA, but I don't feel there's room for negotiation on (the camping ordinance) right now."

Amarotico said he would be interested in hearing ideas from the transient population on ways they might be willing to help out the city - such as volunteering to clean up sidewalks - to develop a mutually beneficial relationship.

"If I heard that sort of dialogue I'd be more willing to discuss it," Amarotico said.

The camping ban issue is essentially closed for Hearn, who recalled the reasons it was instituted to begin with in 1995.

"It's certainly not because we're not empathetic to the issue of homelessness," Hearn said. "I think the camping ban was in reaction to a problem. There were circumstances where camping and aggressive panhandling were getting out of control (in the early 1990s)."

Recalling a conversation with then Ashland Police Chief Gary Brown, Hearn remembered the concern was that Ashland was considered a Mecca for transients - a rich tourist town where panhandlers could do well begging from the tourists.

"The feeling was it was affecting the economy," Hearn said. "You need the tourists, I need them. We have to be careful as to the city changing from the charming sort of idyllic small town (the tourists expect)."

If the ban is lifted, Hearn fears a return to those days.

"What's changed in seven years?" he said. "Word gets around. We have 50 today, but we could have 250 next week."

Hearn said he would push for council support of a camping area with facilities on county land outside the city, but noted the problem is larger than just Ashland.

"It's a national problem that needs to be addressed, but Ashland can't solve it," he said.

Councilor Don Laws was unavailable for comment.

Homeless protest peaceful in Plaza

By Sean Wolfe
Ashland Daily Tidings
February 26, 2003

Intense cold, a few hecklers, and a shortage of blankets did little to dampen the spirits of some 30 members of Ashland's homeless community.

While some had anticipated police harassment, the first night of a two-night camp-out in Ashland's Plaza - staged to raise community awareness of homelessness, as well as protest the city's camping ban - went off without a hitch.

If anything, police were pleasant and helpful.

After discovering that public bathrooms were locked, Ashland Police Department officer Bon Stewart investigated the matter, and came back to the Plaza with his report.

"I've got good news and bad news," Stewart said.

"The good news is that they're unlocked now. The bad news is that there's no light, so it's pretty dark in there."

"We've got flashlights, that's OK," responded one of the campers.

At 8 p.m. Tuesday, temperatures began to plummet to an overnight low of 28 degrees. Volunteers distributed gloves to the participants.

"The problem of homelessness is only increasing," noted William Hemphill, 52, who said he'd been homeless for several years.

"Here in Ashland, you can be arrested for sleeping. Sleeping is a crime? Who can you harm? You're asleep. We really need to rethink this. I mean, you talk about priorities? The U.S. budget has allocated $39 million to help the homeless, versus $600 billion for the war effort. Some of that money would do a lot more good if it were spent domestically," Hemphill said.

Representatives of the homeless camp-out met with city officials on Monday, securing permission to use the Plaza for two days and two nights. This morning, campers were in the process of striking their tents for the day, as part of their agreement with the city.

"We're doing what we said we'd do, and we'll come back at 4 p.m. today, and put them up again," Hemphill said.

Daniel Richards, 29, is one of two organizers of the event. Richards said he was rendered homeless when his van - containing all of his possessions - was impounded by police. Richards, a 6-10 former Southern Oregon University basketball player, said he returned to Ashland to study martial arts with his master, Daniel Rueff, who is also homeless. The pair used announcements at churches and word of mouth to organize the gathering.

"Something needed to be done," Richards said.

"We've been fighting for years, and in the last few months we came up with this. We need to be more visible, not less."

The city's ban on camping goes back to 1995, as a reaction to aggressive panhandling. Representatives of Ashland's Chamber of Commerce, which supported the '95 ban, have said it will review its position on the current homeless situation next month.

Homeless will sleep in peace

By Myles Murphy
Ashland Daily Tidings
February 25, 2003

For the first time in eight years, homeless Ashlanders can sleep outside in peace without keeping half an eye open for police. Maybe.

"Were going to camp out right in the middle of the plaza for two days and two nights," 42-year-old homeless activist Daniel Rueff said this morning at the start of the two-day downtown protest.

The city of Ashland has issued a permit to allow Rueff and fellow protesters to gather day and night at the Plaza and the Lithia Park entrance area from 10 a.m. today through 10 a.m. Thursday.

However, the permit is for the protest gathering and does not allow camping, stating specifically, "It should be noted that camping laws in Ashland should be adhered to."

Protesters plan to spend the night, but is the act of sleeping in a sleeping bag on the Plaza to protest the camping ban an act of free speech or a violation of city rules - even with the permit?

"I can't answer that question, but it's an excellent question," City Attorney Paul Nolte said this morning. "There is that possibility (of citing participants for camping ban violations), but until we see how it goes, I can't say."

"They are not permitted to camp on the Plaza," Nolte added. "But they can stay there all night. We've had all-night vigils before."

The permit also reminds participants not to drum or play musical instruments outside times allowed by the city, not to block pedestrian traffic, and adds, "dogs are not permitted on the Plaza and dog excrement must be immediately cleaned up and deposited in an approved receptacle."

Under a 1995 city ordinance, "No person shall camp in or upon any sidewalk, street, alley, lane, public right-of-way, park, or any other publicly-owned property or under any bridge or viaduct, unless otherwise specifically authorized by this code or by declaration of the Mayor in emergency circumstances."

In recent months, homeless advocates in Ashland have spoken up at city council meetings, complaining of increased police pestering and calling for an end to the camping ban.

"People are getting fines and arrested are being made into criminal just because they are sleeping," Rueff said. "They have to hide from the police, and these are the same people who are supposed to be helping them. I disagree with any laws that are made against necessity."

A handful of protesters started the day off with picket signs outside the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Elizabethan Theater. >From there, they planned to meet up with others on the Plaza by 11 a.m., joining representatives from Ashland's peace movement, Southern Oregon University students and supporters from the environmental community.

Allan Thomas, 40, hopes the protest will be a first step in bringing some kind of permanent camping area for homeless people in Ashland, similar to designated areas in city's such as Portland.

"I lost my home when it was condemned and now we're homeless and living in a care," Thomas said. "I might have a job in three weeks, but what do I do until then?"

Representatives from the city will be handing out notices printed up this morning to inform downtown businesses of the permitted event.