Community struggles with homelessness conversation

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At a recent “listening session” Mayor Stromberg and city councilor Stef Seffinger hosted, Cynthia Rider, Executive Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and a board member of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, said she lives in fear of homeless people. “I have a teenage daughter and walking through downtown with her, she is often sexually harassed, even when I am with her. And she is surprised that I am upset, because she says that it happens 4-5 times every day. She is growing up in a community that will tolerate constant harassment of young women.”

 

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More than a hundred people showed up to the meeting, which was held in the council chambers. Some who showed up to “listen” could not hear.  Residents overflowed into the lobby where they were invited to listen to a small monitor, but the sound proved to be challenging and many people left without participating.Inside the council chambers, dozens of people spoke. The city framed the meeting the following way. “The City Council has been receiving numerous reports, complaints and requests this summer about people in town, hanging out downtown and by exit 14, in unusually large numbers, sometimes behaving in ways that clash with the friendly and respectful life-style that is an integral part of what this community is about.

  1. What behaviors have you found problematic, threatening, intimidating, dangerous, etc.?
  2. What can you tell us about the people causing these problems?
  3. What suggestions do you have for how to cope with the situation?

As a result of that framing, story after story of frightening encounters with the homeless were repeated during the session, many coming from Chamber members. “This is a complex issue”, said Katharine Cato, Marketing Director of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce. “It’s not a downtown issue, not a Chamber issue.  It’s about those who choose to be home free and their abusive behavior. We live in a fragile environment. This issue is about those who do not care about or contribute to our community, nor contribute to it. Collectively, I think want to live in a place where people can raise families without fear.  How bad does it have to get?” Some of the stories that were told were incidents that have happened over the last several years and yet the meeting did not seek to clarify that, leaving many with the notion that Ashland is unsafe.

Not all of the comments expressed at the meeting were negative about the transient population. More than a dozen people spoke about how the issue of homelessness is a humanitarian issue and several pointed out that the transients who pass through town are refugees.

The manager of the Ashland Community Resource Center, Leigh Madsen suggests that one solution might be for the city to use the plaza space more often, especially in creative and inclusive ways. He thinks that creating a diverse culture would benefit us all, those housed and homeless.

A St. Vincent de Paul volunteer, David Hill, questioned the validity of using the term “home free” to describe anyone who is homeless. “There’s a false dichotomy between homeless and home free.” He went on to explain that when someone becomes homeless, it’s human nature to not identify oneself as having fallen into that situation. “They are homeless, but look to a little bit of pride by saying ‘it’s my choice’. It’s not really their choice, they are stuck just like the rest of them. If people are treated like animals, they will act like animals. If they are treated with respect, they will act with respect.”

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The idea of having welcoming Main Street ambassadors was brought up by longtime resident and activist Dot Fisher-Smith.  “I’ve lived in this community since 1981,” she said, “I want to point to the bigger picture that these kinds of behavior are symptomatic of a society that creates war… rather than taking care of each other.” She went on to describe how as an elderly woman who rides her bike around town, she often has encounters with homeless people and expressed that they are all mostly friendly “because she greets them with a smile. When met with fear or hostility they are going to give back what they get. I think more ordinances and laws are just more repressive. The behaviors are just a few people.”  She urged locals to attend the community meal at Uncle Food’s Diner on Tuesday evenings and thinks that if the folks who are afraid of homeless people would sit down with them and talk, that would be a step towards finding a lasting solution.

Another local business owner, Susan Franz says that we need to have public restrooms open 24/7 and that it isn’t right to cite people for urinating in public when there’s nowhere else for them to go, She said, “I am not referring to them and those people, but welcoming them as guests and asking them to comply with our standards.”

Several local homeowners spoke of having to clean up homeless camps and described how people sleep in area parks. A man named Nick (last name on audio indecipherable) said he lives near the railroad tracks and talked about groups of homeless that camp behind boulders near his property. “Sometimes when my wife and I go to the gym, we almost trip over them,” he said. Nick went on to describe how he’s watched people sleeping and defecating in Railroad Park and believes that the solution is for the police to instruct “those people to move along.” He said that the homeless are there by choice. “Those people are not part of our community, they are just using our community for their needs and moving on.”

The meeting went on for three hours and we were able to record all but the last half hour. Before we left, we heard from a young woman named Brigieta Balsimo, who identified herself as being home free.

“I want to share a different perspective on why this is happening.  I am a former preschool teacher. I am a homeless, unemployed, transient. I was a transient for 6 months, and now here I am. I was home free by choice. I had 3 jobs, I paid my bills, my rent. I had a back yard and a car, and it wasn’t enough.  The travelers you see are in every city and they are an entire generation. You must understand that this is a mentality, This is a rebellion, a movement against everything American society has produced and that’s okay to an extent. People are changing, the world is in revolt. My generation is trying to develop a culture they can believe in. Unfortunately they don’t believe in buying a house, having a 9-5, a bank account, getting married. They want something different and I can tell you right now, we don’t know how to get it.”

Balsimo continued, “This is the product of misdirected unhappiness, of current societal norms. I do not want to have a house. I don’t want to get married. I don’t want to be stationary, I don’t want to be considered normal.  But in order to fit into a community that I have grown to love, I forced myself to conform. I come to these meetings, I integrate myself into public happenings, I volunteer at the Medford public Library. I do have a plan. And I can find a purpose and with effort and courage I will direct my unhappiness into changing our world. The other kids, they don’t want anything. They don’t want to be off the streets, they don’t want your privilege. They want to disrupt society and challenge your beliefs, Your entire existence is a threat to them and that is why they disrupt your day to day activities. It’s misdirected unhappiness and that is okay. What’s not okay is obvious illegal behavior. However  these people do not live by the same rules. That is the whole point. Regardless of our unsettled youth, resources and counsel should be implemented for the homeless. When you begin to see these people as potential and welcome the challenge of a different mentality there can be monumental growth on both ends.”

Balsimo’s powerful words struck a nerve in some folks and there were some comments made on social media that showcase the frenzied fear that this meeting seemed to stir up in local residents. A woman named Sheila Lanni said, “I no longer shop downtown, nor can I walk my dog downtown or even on the Greenway because of fear. The streets are not crowded with tourists, but with terrorists. I have been harassed and threatened, my dog has been attacked by the “dog gangs” (on ropes, not leashes) on every corner and park downtown. Most telling is the statement made by Brigieta Balsimo…Sounds like a form of terrorism to me. Would we be this tolerant to other types of terrorist threats in our city? I think not.”

Out of the 35 people who spoke, only one woman identified herself as someone who is currently homeless. Kate O’Dell gets the last word. She expressed that a solution is to hire an advisory board of people who are homeless and noted that there’s a huge amount of trauma on the streets, including runaways, and those with PTSD. She urged everyone to try to understand what we’re all dealing with and to have compassion. “Homeless people help each other. You don’t survive by following the rules that are stacked against you.” .

Editor’s reflections: It was obvious that the Ashland Chamber of Commerce pushed for this meeting and it was discouraging to hear negative attacks on homeless folks rather than focusing on real solutions. Last month (October 2015, RVCP) we covered the Department of Justice statement of interest, which spells out that the criminalization of homelessness is soon to be a federal crime. Ashland does not have year round shelter for homeless people. The few shelter resources in Medford are often full and have limitations that keep people stuck in homelessness. Covering this listening session was a hard task, because we could not ignore that terrible things were said at that meeting, things that we found to be so outrageous that they can’t be ignored. Bad behavior is not exclusive to any one class of people. We want the city to address and lift the camping ban and create an inclusive environment where all people can survive by their means. We’re interested in hearing from the community and welcome your letters. If you are homeless, we especially want to hear from you. editor@rvcommunitypress.com

 

About Vanessa Houk

Passionate about social and economic justice, Vanessa Houk is dedicated to chronicling the struggles of labor and civil rights. Based in Ashland, she is the editor-in-chief of the Rogue Valley Community Press.

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