ashland.news
July 18, 2024

Police sweeps at Ashland’s dusk-to-dawn camping area prompts problem-solving effort

The Ashland night lawn behind the municipal building on East Main Street on April 27, 2024. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
June 16, 2024

Committee tackles issues plaguing sleeping area by police station, also known as the ‘night lawn’ 

By Morgan Rothborne, Ashland.news

At their invitation, Mayor Tonya Graham joined a meeting of volunteers Friday morning to strategize solutions for Ashland’s dusk-to-dawn (or night lawn) camping area behind the Ashland Police Department (APD) and City Council chamber buildings on East Main Street. 

The previous Wednesday at 6 a.m. the belongings of several night lawn guests were gathered up in trucks by APD officers and disposed of at the dump, said Debbie Niesewander, a self-appointed advocate for Ashland’s homeless people. 

“I’ve spent the last week struggling to replace items and trying to create a stable enough area. … A lot of people are just refusing to come back (to the night lawn). They’re spread out, hiding, feeling inferior,” Niesewander said. 

Mayor Tonya Graham speaking at during a Friday meeting of a volunteer-formed committee to address problems at Ashland’s dusk-to-dawn camping area. Ashland.news photo by Morgan Rothborne

According to the city of Ashland’s camping ordinance, camping is prohibited in public areas, leaving the night lawn as the designated area for homeless people to camp. 

Graham stated she was made aware of the incident and contacted Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara, who told her the action was made under his direction. 

“That particular property that morning was a combination of stuff that had been in police possession for some time and had not been claimed, and some stuff, including food, that had been abandoned in front of the parking lot for several days and they had determined it was clearly garbage,” she said. 

Billy Carpenter, a pastor and volunteer helping on the lawn, stated he witnessed two officers loading up possessions Wednesday. He said he saw the possessions earlier that morning neatly arranged and not resembling garbage. He questioned the officers and was told it was “all trash.” He believed the actions were wrong. 

Campers store their things on the lawn in front of the Ashland municipal building during the day, before being allowed onto the night lawn in February 2024. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

Disposal of possessions can mean the loss of I.D. cards, birth certificates, and other materials that make a homeless person’s situation more challenging, said Avram Sacks, a longtime volunteer organizer and host for the city’s emergency weather shelter. 

Ashland residents have complained to the city about the appearance of camps in the area, Graham said. 

“It’s a huge frustration. We still get messages like, ‘Why is there so much garbage in front of the police station?’” she said. 

She asked the committee to help her understand how these possessions appeared abandoned. Niesewander responded that at least two of those involved in last week’s sweep had been in jail, one was hospitalized after a stroke. Some guests also leave early to recycle cans before the heat of the day. 

The two primary forms of income for this population are “cans and blood,” meaning gathering cans to recycle and donating plasma, said Alexandra Ried, who operates the Laundry Love trailer. 

Billy Carpenter shared a recent experience with Ashland Police during a Friday meeting of a volunteer-formed committee to address problems at Ashland’s dusk-to-dawn camping area. Ashland.news photo by Morgan Rothborne

Niesewander showed Graham a photo of an abandoned camp with food and garbage. Guests sometimes abandon things, but also disappear and reappear for reasons such as incarceration or hospitalization. They sometimes ask other guests to watch their things, but when officers remove them at an early hour without notice there is no opportunity to intervene. 

The use of a couple of the city’s pallet houses or a shed for storage would be ideal, said Helena Turner, a nurse with the Oregon Health and Sciences University’s street nurse team. When asked, guests said they wanted bins that could be organized with wipe-off markers and shelves to keep their possessions safe from police sweeps and protect their food from the ever-growing rat problem. 

 The city has not been watering the area, Niesewander said, and the rats are “awful thirsty,” emboldened to be no longer nocturnal but running through the area day and night. 

“The rats are very happy and content, they’re making more rats,” she said. 

Debbie Niesewander helps Joseph Wise move his belongings from next to Main Street to the night lawn area in December 2023. Drew Fleming photo for Ashland.news

The consideration of rats led back to discussion of storage of belongings and some sort of structured oversight, such as a designated host, on the night lawn. 

Graham stated that “clarity is kindness,” and shared concerns and limitations regarding their requests. The city’s general fund can’t support the previously considered host in the face of other priorities such as keeping Ashland Fire & Rescue prepared to meet wildfire risk, she said.

Some residents have told the city that while they want to support those trying to better their situation, they don’t want those with mental health, addiction, or other disruptive behaviors supported in Ashland. There is also a concern that services provided only increase demand for services and the city can’t be expected to take on the responsibility of solving for mental health, Graham said. 

The potential for storage would have to be tied to behavior; there should be a corresponding way to ensure those supported as night lawn guests are not those with disruptive behaviors, she said. 

Jayvon Ried, husband of Alexandra Ried, said he agreed the city could not be expected to solve the issue, but the issue remained pressing for the night lawn. 

Alexandra Reid and her husband, Javon Reid, listen during a Friday meeting of a volunteer-formed committee to address problems at Ashland’s dusk-to-dawn camping area. Ashland.news photo by Morgan Rothborne

“There’s very few places whose responsibility it is to take care of the mentally ill. We have a real big mental health problem in Oregon. In every little town we suffer the consequences,” he said. 

Oregon has some of the worst mental health care in the nation despite investing money and the city has struggled to find a coherent plan from the state as the system is “on its knees,” Graham said. 

Driving out individuals with problem behaviors isn’t effective, Turner said. In her work, she visits Medford, Grants Pass and Ashland and sees the same individuals repeatedly. As they are driven from one town for their behaviors, they move to the next. 

Establishing a sense of safety and expectations reduces anxiety, making it easier for people to stabilize, she said. Someone who could store their belongings safely might be encouraged to visit a methadone clinic. Volunteers have also begun serving as greeters in the evenings, outlining rules and identifying resources as guests arrive. 

Graham responded in her experience, addicts do not approach treatment until the cost of the addiction is greater than the drive of it. She acknowledged the city has wrestled with balancing allowing guests on the lawn and resident’s complaints, often allowing possessions to remain jumbled and visible until complaints drive their removal. Structure could help provide stability, she said. 

Campers set up on the night lawn on Dec. 5. Drew Fleming photo for Ashland.news

In addition to storage, volunteers requested a liaison to help APD officers and volunteers solve problems, clearer signage for rules, delineation of campsites, establishing guest capacity, authority for volunteers to expel those breaking rules and an area for serving breakfast and coffee. 

Graham stated she would confer with the interim city manager and police chief and bring the result of those conversations to the committee’s meeting at 9 a.m. June 28 in the Ashland Community Development Building at 51 Winburn Way. 

The committee meets every Friday morning downstairs at the Ashland Public Library, unless the mayor or other city staff are in attendance, in which case they meet on Winburn Way, Niesewander said.

Email Ashland.news reporter Morgan Rothborne at morganr@ashland.news.

Related stories:

Homeless man injured in fire on city night lawn dies (May 9, 2024)

U.S. Supreme Court appears to lean toward Oregon city in complex homelessness case (April 24, 2024)

City staff: Help needed if city is to continue helping the homeless (April 16, 2024)

More demand than shelter openings for homeless: ‘There’s no rest’ (March 4, 2024)

One night lawn fire victim recovering, while others remain hospitalized (Feb. 27, 2024)

Homeless campers had ‘hair on fire,’ witnesses say (Jan. 16, 2024)

Ashland’s ‘night lawn’ camping area facing challenges (Dec. 11, 2023)

Now that it has an alternative, city to begin enforcing public camping policy on May 26 (May 18, 2023)

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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