ASHLAND — Picture a town with a state university, strong cultural amenities, a liberal bent and a reputation as an attractive, but increasingly more unaffordable, place to live.
Corvallis? Maybe, but it also could describe Ashland. The Southern Oregon town of more than 21,000 is home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and it features a bustling downtown and a magnificent outdoor jewel, Lithia Park, within a few steps of Main Street.
Ashland also has faced challenges with homelessness and in 2012 instituted an “expulsion zone” ordinance that can result in an individual being trespassed from the downtown core.
“We saw the same people consistently engaging in negative behaviors over and over,” said Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara in an interview at his office. “Drinking in public, smoking marijuana. And these were violations, not crimes. We were accumulating huge fines at Municipal Court. And you can’t put somebody in jail for violations.”
The length of the expulsions vary from 30 days to 180 days.
“There are guidelines,” O’Meara said, “but it is up to the judge.”
There have been ups and downs in terms of service calls, with 2016 experiencing a bit of a spike, O’Meara said. But the past two years have been better and O’Meara noted that year-over-year calls for service are down 47 percent in 2018 compared to 2017.
“The (expulsion zone) is an important tool,” O’Meara said. “And it is a successful tool. It’s the only thing we have for us to get a handle on people who don’t care if they get 50 sanctions. More importantly it just stops the negative behavior downtown. No one thinks this is THE answer. The process is far from complete.”
The city of Albany approved a similar exclusion ordinance in April, and the city is scheduled to review it next month. Corvallis sent a delegation to Ashland in 2017 and twice the City Council discussed a possible enhanced law enforcement area for the city. But the concept received opposition from the community and councilors reached consensus that they did not want to go forward with an ordinance. No vote was taken.
Here is a snapshot of what some other communities are trying to deal with the issue of homelessness:
In January Pat Farr of the Lane County Board of Commissioners, a former state legislator and food bank official, briefed the Corvallis Housing Opportunities Action Council on initiatives to fight homelessness in Eugene and elsewhere in Lane County.
Farr cited work underway to help house more homeless veterans, increase food bank contributions, reduce problems of persistent violators of city code, put together a layered system of warming facilities and add 600 housing units for the homeless.
Also, the Eugene City Council in its 2017-18 budget earmarked $1 million to help pay for a year-round shelter. In his January remarks in Corvallis, Farr noted the city still was working on a site. Now, the Register-Guard reports, the city of Eugene and Lane County have hired a consultant to study how to provide a publicly funded homeless shelter. The report is due sometime this fall.
In addition, a $2 million plan by the St. Vincent de Paul society to build a house for homeless boys in west Eugene has been shelved, the Register-Guard says, because of community concerns about the project.
A church in the Marion County town of 10,000 put forth a plan to build tiny dwelling units on its property to house homeless women. Instead of looking at a conditional use permit for the project, the city decided to initiate a code change that would cover the entire community.
Two Planning Commission sessions and three City Council meetings later, the community is close to having a plan ready, but the number of units, which would have neither bathrooms or kitchens, has been reduced from 10 per site to four. And only two churches at a time can offer such an option.
The council will look at the matter again Oct. 1.
Like Ashland, Medford also has a downtown expulsion zone ordinance that was passed in April 2017. Persistent violators can be banned for up to 90 days. And like Ashland’s law, Medford’s has been challenged in court but to date it has not been overturned.
Rogue Retreat, a nonprofit in Jackson County, which includes Ashland and Medford, offers a comprehensive five-tiered housing program, starting with an emergency shelter that operates from Jan. 1 through March 31 each year. The next step is the “Hope Village,” 14 tiny houses built in 2017 that serve as transitional shelter.
Shared recovery housing, subsidized apartments and “Restart Retreat,” affordable housing without subsidies, completes the pyramid.