Small group pitches camp in prominent Ashland locations
By Debora Gordon for Ashland.news
Whether you call them homeless, houseless or home free doesn’t change their situation, but since early February a small band has been making a statement in hopes of inspiring change. They’ve set up camp in prominent public places in Ashland recently, including on the Plaza, on Gateway Island between the library and fire station, and in Triangle Park.
Their freshly pitched tents then get a notice posted on them, notifying the occupants they’ll have to move along within 72 hours. They do, and the process repeats.
Among those saying they’re protesting against being compelled by police officers to relocate are Maverick, a 32-year-old mother of three school-age children; Joseph, a man in his mid-40s; and Annie, a self-described trans woman, as well as several other people who join them on occasion.
The trio declined to give their last names.
Maverick, who has been homeless for nearly 15 years with her three children and her dog, would ask that those in the encampments be brought into the civic conversation: “Accept one of us as a voice at the table, council meetings, board members, funding, city planning, engineering. They don’t take our point of view into account. To keep open minded about lifestyle options. This is our third winter out here. We got here May 2020.”
Her children, who are 9, 12 and 13 years old, live with her in a tent, which she calls “the tabernacle,” which she defines as “a safe space. It’s a portable dwelling for survival in the desert.”
Maverick’s son Fenris, 12, is currently homeschooled. He said, “I have a bit of friends my age that really do support our living. I actually meet more people out here.” In terms of his friends, he says, “I go visit them. Usually they have homes, but I do have a few homeless friends.” In general, they encourage him to “stay safe.”
Describing her interactions with police, Maverick said she feels they harass her by posting, often in the middle of the night, the 72-hour notices to move.
“Some of them do (harass her), and some of them don’t,” she says. “Some of them simply leave a notice and disappear; and others come up and say, ‘well, you’re not accepting our offers,’ and I told them, ‘I cannot for the sake of the children. I cannot accept this offer.’”
The offers have been referrals to the Maslow Project and Ashland Police Department itself, which Maverick says do not meet her needs and preferences.
“I’ve been offered rent at Emigrant Lake, a campsite in Medford. They’re isolated. They’re geared to predators, they’re unsafe,” Maverick said. “In Emigrant, there’s no safe footpath; no pedestrian trail from here to there. And they won’t listen.”
Maverick and her family have devised ways of dealing with the cold. “We’re used to layering up a certain amount, tents and tarps,” she said. “We have the dog in there, cuddling up. My stitched outfits have lasted for years … through cold weather, so, we’re pretty well adjusted to the weather.”
Another occupant of the rotating encampments is Annie, a 27-year-old self-described trans woman, who sometimes is able to stay with friends.
“I’ve been out here for about a year,” she adi. “Sometimes I can stay with a friend. And I was living with somebody here; it had rats. We lost all our utilities; I couldn’t live like that anymore. I’m trying to get on my feet and get a job I mean, a job’s a job. In retail, hopefully. But I need a haircut; I need to clean my clothes, but there’s no laundry vouchers, so I can’t do any laundry.” She does say that “OHRA (Options for Helping Residents of Ashland) helped me get my ID, my SS card, I lost my ID. What could really help me would be some place I could do laundry, get a haircut, because how am I going to get stuff up and get a job and continue working if I can’t have good hygiene? If this keeps happening the way it is and that’s the thing, is like being in a tent is like cleaner than sleeping on the ground. The law’s not allowing tents. It makes it hard to keep clean and sleep in a spot you can sweep out and keep clean.”
Annie sometimes feels unsafe “when I’m not sleeping around people I know. I have a problem with shelters. Shelters tend to be institutionalized, and kind of almost looks like a prison. All kinds of range of people and then there’s fights; there’s all this loud noises and stuff going on. I don’t like that stuff. I don’t trust situations like that. I usually stop there just for food.”
Joseph Gibson, who also goes by Joe Camel, is a 43-year-old occupant of the encampment, describing himself as “home-free” since 2004. He reflects on comments from passersby.
“A lot of the angst I get from people,” he said. “The closer they are to one paycheck away, the more anger I face from them, but the same dichotomy, the closer you are to one paycheck away, the more you’re willing to give and help people in that situation. The closer you are, that you could be in this position, the more anger I face.”
Gibson adds the term “home-free” to the usual descriptors of “homeless” and “houseless.” He thinks of them as different things. “So, houseless and homeless and then you enter into this whole other category of being ‘home free,’” he said. “I have a three-step thing that I’m going after. So, first, stop being criminal towards homeless and home-free people. Second, we need to set a line between what is civil homelessness and non-civil homelessness. The use of sleeping gear is an uncivil action. That line is not right. We need to set a line that actually does differentiate. I am homeless and I am civil in what I am doing. We need to set that line. The third thing is that we as a society need to acknowledge what ‘home free’ is: An outside existence.
“If you put me in a house, force me into a home, I will come at you with cruel and unusual punishment charges. I will get psychologists to acknowledge that me, inside a home, is painful and punishment — it’s not a thing I can do. There’s a lot of people out there, that if you made them live outside, you can no longer have a roof over your head, they would go insane over the cruelty, and they just couldn’t deal with it. I’m the other way.”
Gibson became “home free” about 20 years ago. “For a few years, I was housed, I was stable, we (Gibson and some friends) started a restaurant, and the IRS took it from us. It was the point of my life where I got into all sorts of phone and tech-related kind of stuff and so at one point, I was making $60 an hour and I was very much housed; but there were IRS and legal issues. I tried several times to become this 1-9, W-4 (referring to an immigration work document and tax document, respectively), stable tax member of society, and each time, I get purged out of it, and now I’m struggling just to feed myself.
“On the flip side, I can do speed spray paint art and I can do a full, poster-sized painting in a minute or minute and a half. I sell them for $20 each. So any time I’m on tour, any time I’m at a festival, Venice Beach, or waterfront in Portland, Oregon, I can make $400-600 an hour with my art.”
Gibson stayed at the OHRA shelter on Ashland Street, but was unhappy he wasn’t able to open the windows. “Up until just recently, the windows, it’s a motel that has been remodeled into a housing unit,” he said. “So, the motel windows were screwed so that you couldn’t open them more than 1.5 inch to prevent them from being able to get other people in their room.” That made it a fire hazard, he said, since you wouldn’t be able to escape through a window.
Cass Sinclair, Executive Director of OHRA, said, “the windows open to 6 inches. You have air return, open for all; they’re not required for egress.”
Options for Helping Residents of Ashland
OHRA, a 13-year old organization started by a group of concerned residents of Jackson County, operates the 52-room, low-barrier shelter at 2350 Ashland St. It serves 40-50 people a day, including the unhoused as well as people who are below the poverty line.
OHRA’s services include a laundry/shower trailer, providing about 40 showers per week to people who come to the trailer. Sinclair said, “A huge portion of the work at the resource center is to help our community members to stay housed.”
OHRA provides rental and utility assistance and also serves as a primary mail home for people who are unhoused. “Anybody coming through our door, can come in to make an appointment with one of our eight navigators,” Sinclair said. “Those who come may be looking for anything from a birth certificate to a driver’s license to signing up for Section 8 housing shelter, among other assistance.”
Sinclair describes the model OHRA follows as “trauma-informed, low barrier. Just come alongside the people that we’re serving; help them move barriers, help move from crisis to stability. The thread that ties us all together are our navigators, so when we have folks who come into shelter; the chronically unhoused, highest needs individuals that score the highest on the vulnerability index.”
OHRA serves a large clientele. “We currently have to 40 to 50 to 60 people a day coming through the resource center. We’ve gotten 144 people or families permanently housed since April 2021. I would like to say is we’re doing everything we can, to keep the barriers so low, that people who normally might not connect with services. They’ve been marginalized, criminalized, living with substance abuse disorders — those folks have likely more barriers to reaching out to get connected, if that’s what they want to get to the next step whatever it is, housing, a job, that low barrier piece.
“So that’s what we’re looking to do as an organization, is to help be a part of ending homelessness or houselessness, and also just providing dignity and respect. Like I said, people often come into shelter, and they don’t have to meet with a navigator, they can a roof over their heads, a hot shower and a warm meal. That may be all they want or need.”
Sinclair defines the terms “homeless,” “unhoused,” and “home-free” as being different from each other: “Cultural competency and language changes. Being trauma informed, to call somebody ‘homeless,’ that’s not a current term. We don’t want to assign what something means to somebody else. If someone lives outside and they’re living free, it would be an assumption for us to say ‘they’re in crisis’; or they’re experiencing something just because I might say they are, so we have to be really sensitive to that.
“I know a lot of organizations and, people who seek to be trauma informed would say you know the houseless or unhoused, vs. homeless. I’m not the expert between homeless and houseless. Homeless: if someone has a tent and that’s their home; and they identify that as their home, then saying they’re homeless, is saying that they’re ‘less than’ — it implies “less than.”
Ashland Police Department
Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara said that “the laws regarding camping in public places are in flux right now. There is a law on the books, the Ashland Muni Code, that prohibits people from camping on any public property, including parks, streets, of sidewalks, etc. That law remains on the books. However, there is a new state law that is going to come into play in June or July that also impacts our ability to enforce the camping law.
“But there remains a prohibitive camping a law on the books. Prohibiting camping was very complaint driven. We know there are people who camp in the parks, we know that there are people who live in their cars, and that camping situation (in public places) presents a situation we can’t ignore. We didn’t really go out of our way to enforce it, but very often people start camping in a very conspicuous way, and then the problem becomes of a scale we can no longer ignore.
“The protest that’s currently going on the same protest happened a year or so ago; there are some people who believe that they have some sort of right to exclusively occupy public property, in whatever manner they want to, even if given other housing options. OHRA and other entities and people have tried to accommodate the people that are currently engaging in this camping protest to get them stable housing and, for whatever reason, they refuse to participate in that. They say, ‘no, we want to exist this way.’ We say, ‘we can get you stable housing in Medford for the next number of weeks, and work with you to stabilize’ and they say ‘no, we don’t want to do that.’
“So, we’re in this position, these folks are engaging in their protest against the community framework that’s been set up. They’re protesting that they have right to fully occupy space that’s meant for everyone’s consumption. … They’ll set their camp up somewhere, and what we’re doing, is participating, under Oregon law, if there’s a camp that’s in violation of rules that govern that area, it can be posted that for 72 hours removal. …
“If they refuse and say ‘we want this,’ we can’t compel them to participate. The other thing that I think is worthwhile noting: this (the housing, or lack of housing, situation) is not a police matter; and the enforcement arm of this, the management, the navigation of this, is very much a police matter, but homelessness is at its core not a police matter. It’s a societal issue. If we’re at our best, we’re being community partners; compassionately, ethically and equitably, helping people navigate. But in the end, we’re enforcers of the rule. We’re not the people upon whom this should fall. It’s a societal issue.”
Debora Gordon is a writer, artist, educator and non-violence activist who recently moved to Ashland from Oakland, California. Email Ashland.news Executive Editor Bert Etling at firstname.lastname@example.org or call or text him at 541-631-1313.