The downtown economy of Ashland is heavily dependent on the tourists who flock to see the Oregon Shakespeare Festival or who come to hike, bike, ski, fish and boat the area’s mountains and waterways.
Last year, complaints from merchants, residents and visitors about aggressive panhandling and uncivil behavior by some homeless people reached a fever pitch.
Now, city officials are looking for fresh ideas to head off a new season of unpleasantness.
Recent summers have seen a growing influx of young transients into Ashland, many of whom hang out on downtown streets.
At a standing-room-only public meeting last October, one Ashland resident after another told stories of the newcomers behaving in offensive and intimidating ways. Pam Hammond-Morris read a letter from her daughter Kelly Jean.
“Some of the harassment I have been the recipient of has been mildly humorous: ‘Adopt me, pretty lady’ ... Or gross: ‘How often do you masturbate? Can I help?’ … and downright threatening. Transient to me while on the phone: ‘Hey! You talking to your boyfriend? I’m gonna kill him up so you’ll f*ck me instead!’”
Many told of being met with curses and threats when they declined to give to panhandlers. Merchants testified tourists had told them they’d had ugly experiences and would avoid Ashland in the future.
The City Council has been discussing measures from stricter laws and tougher enforcement to enhanced services for the homeless. Some city leaders have been impressed with one program in particular.
Chris Richardson, with the Downtown Streets Team, was in Ashland recently with two colleagues. Sitting outside the local homeless services center, he explained the program.
“Downtown Streets Team is what we call a work experience program,” he says. “Our mission is to end homelessness through the dignity of work.”
Richardson is regional director for Downtown Streets Team. The non-profit began in 2005 in Palo Alto, California. It’s since expanded into San Francisco and several other Bay Area cities. The program builds teams of homeless people who perform clean-up and beautification services around town. In exchange, they get vouchers for food and other basic needs.
But, Richardson says, they also develop a sense of belonging and self-esteem.
“You can imagine that if you’ve been on the street for, let’s say, five years and a lot of opportunities haven’t worked out,” he says. “You lose a lot of hope, you lose a lot of dignity and you lose a lot of motivation. So we’re really good at working with those folks and building them back up.”
Downtown Streets Team says it’s helped hundreds of homeless people get back on their feet and into jobs and permanent housing.
Pam Marsh runs the Ashland Emergency Food Bank. She’s also a city council member. She says the Downtown Streets Team approach could be a major part of Ashland’s array of responses to the problems associated with homelessness.
“The Downtown Streets program fits in very well into that array and I think there’s an opportunity in all this community discussion to do something that’s really a tangible way to help people change their lives,” she says.
Ashland Mayor John Stromberg agrees. He’s been wrestling with what he sees as two related but distinct issues; dealing with disruptive behavior downtown, while trying to take care of the local homeless population.
Stromberg thinks the Downtown Streets Team would help with both sides of that equation.
“These people are bright, they’re solid, they are community oriented and they’re wonderful improvisers. They’re perfect for us.”
Not everyone is so sure … For one thing, there’s the question of how to raise the Street Team program’s cost, about $300,000 per year.
There are also compatibility concerns. The non-profit Ashland Community Resource Center is the hub of homeless services in Ashland. Tina Stevens runs the Center’s jobs program.
“I think that they’ve got a wonderful program and they seemed like absolutely wonderful people from the bit that I’ve talked with them,” Stevens says. “But I don’t know if their program is different enough from ours to not have us stepping on each other’s toes.”
A homeless Ashland resident who goes by the name Sean wonders if vouchers for food and clothing will be enough to coax many of his cohort into participating in the Streets Team program.
“We have clothes,” he says. “We have food. The only thing we really need is that transition to be able to have safe housing … safe and cheap housing.”
There’s the rub … The price of housing in the Ashland area has skyrocketed and rents have soared as the vacancy rate has sunk below two percent.
Sean also feels the local homeless people are being tarred with the same brush as the unruly transients.
“We have travelers who come through that don’t care about other people’s back yards so they leave the problems behind,” he explains. “And the locals who are trying to make a difference are caught in the wake. And we’re the ones who have to live with the new rules and the regulations.”
City officials are laying plans to beef up the downtown law enforcement presence this summer.
They hope that stick – plus the carrot offered by the Downtown Streets Team, assuming the council approves it – will head off another summer of conflict in paradise.