Court decisions say sleeping in public can’t be banned if there’s no alternative available
By Morgan Rothborne, Ashland.news
The city of Ashland is exploring potential changes to its camping ordinance with an eye for balance between the competing interests of homeowners, local businesses and recent legal precedent — all without sacrificing compassion for homeless people.
In recent months, the city’s legal department has worked with its police department to reconsider how best to strike that balance, said incoming Ashland City Attorney Carmel Zahran.
Proposed changes include new prohibitions on the time, place or ways someone can camp in the city and the potential for additional Enhanced Law Enforcement Areas (ELOAs).
Recent civil rights lawsuits in federal court have dictated cities cannot prohibit someone who is “involuntarily unhoused” from sleeping outside if there is no available shelter, Acting City Attorney Doug McGeary explained at a City Council study session Monday. Ashland could dictate that some places are designated “sensitive areas,” and prohibited from camping as long as other areas or shelter are available.
Potential sensitive areas include Lithia Park or parks with playgrounds, sidewalks and rights of way, any designated ELEAs, within 250 feet of schools or daycares, within 150 feet of other campsites, within 250 feet of freeway entrances, within 250 feet of a designated shelter and within 100 feet of any river or stream, according to a draft of the ordinance. Homeless people may also be asked not to camp in any one place longer than 72 hours and will be given up to 72 hours notice before a camp is removed unless the camp is determined a health and safety hazard to the community, according to a draft of the ordinance.
The city also has the responsibility to store possessions of homeless people collected while clearing camps. The city can determine utility and value of these items and dispose of some including any determined to be a health or safety hazard.
Councilor Dylan Bloom asked about extending prohibited spaces up to 500 feet from places like daycares or schools. Councilor Bob Kaplan expressed concern about Ashland’s limited size and how the city would mark off the listed areas as prohibited without depriving homeless people of anywhere to go. Councilors directed city staff to create a colorized map of all proposed sensitive areas.
The city may utilize public transit to remove homeless people from camping on the street and send them to other shelters in the regional area.
“If they’re near transit stations, and they can be given a bus token, that may solve some of your problems, instead of having to build more shelter here,” McGeary said.
Ashland may also consider imitating Medford’s “livability team,” a task force within its police department focused on homelessness issues. The city may create additional ELEAs in areas seeing increased criminal activity, such as portions of the south side of Ashland.
“It (ELEA) identifies a number of violations, if you get x amount of violations then it can be a crime … there can be an arrest and expulsion from the area. The idea is really to emphasize that we are always inclusive, but if the behavior is bad enough and there is repeated bad behavior, then we will expel,” Zahran said.
Police Chief Tighe O’Meara emphasized that officers give warnings and citations prior to arrests or expulsion. ELEAs allow law enforcement to remove repeat offenders who have not responded to previous efforts to alter problem behaviors.
During the public comment period of the meeting, Debbie Nieswander identified herself as an advocate for homeless people. She acknowledged many Ashland residents have concerns about safety or consider homeless camps to be “unsightly,” but she asked council to consider the ordinance changes carefully.
“You all have discussed it openly and we haven’t been able to participate and that’s been part of the problem, the lack of participation. … (A)ctually, this is criminalizing homelessness,” she said.
Potential changes to the ordinance or additional ELEAs will be discussed in future meetings and be altered according to public response and the direction of City Council, Mayor Tonya Graham said.
“We should all be prepared that this may be a little bit longer of a process. … There will be time for people to weigh in on the ordinance language,” she said.
Email Ashland.news reporter Morgan Rothborne at email@example.com.