Ashland parks struggle with rising tide of trash

·4 min read

Jul. 13—Ashland parks are seeing more trash this year, and residents, city officials, parks employees and the contractor hired to clean the parks are wrestling with where the garbage is coming from and what to do about it.

On June 21, as Ashland City Council prepared to renew the city's janitorial services contract with Pathways Enterprises for another year, Councilor Gina DuQuenne said she had been receiving complaints about trash in the parks, and she said that citizen's groups were organizing parks cleanups.

On the social media site Nextdoor, a June 27 post titled "Ashland Tourists — Welcome to Lithia Park ... our dump," attracted 170 comments.

"I instructed [parks] staff to not pass a full garbage can, to stop and empty it," Ashland Parks and Recreation Director Micheal Black said recently.

Black said he believes the city's contract with Pathway Enterprises should be sufficient to keep the garbage under control without additional assistance, but he has noticed more trash in the parks.

Richard Simpson, contracts coordinator for Pathway Enterprises, said his staff have experienced an uptick in conflict and risk in trying to do their jobs.

"Recently I was putting together a training for janitorial work, and for the first time ever I had to put in a crime prevention portion — how not to get attacked, how not to get raped," Simpson said.

Simpson said his staff, who clean parks in Medford and Ashland, are front and center on the opioid epidemic, the housing shortage and a lack of resources for the mentally ill.

Pathway Enterprises is a nonprofit dedicated to helping those with disabilities or mental illnesses find work and housing.

This work is part of the solution to the some of the same social issues contributing to the garbage, Simpson said. People who could have ended up camping in a bathroom are instead employed cleaning them.

Phil Hausman, Pathway's parks supervisor, said that over the past two and a half years of supervising workers in the bathrooms of Southern Oregon parks, he has noticed an increase in people camping in bathrooms and resisting being asked to leave when it's time to clean them.

"I look for a leader of the group, and we tell them we're just trying to clean it; it's better for you if you let us clean it," Hausman said.

Ashland's homeless people are generally more polite, he said, than those in Medford, but it depends on the time of year, the weather and whether drugs are a factor, in which case his staff deal with everything from belligerence to responding to an overdose.

When bathroom occupants are combative, because so many of his workers have disabilities, he is abundantly cautious with their safety. He tells his staff to call the nonemergency line for the police and leave the area, full garbage can or no.

"It's a little less hostile in Ashland ... but in Medford it seems like it's more drug-fueled," Hausman said of people he and his workers find camping in parks bathrooms.

Hausman said some homeless men in the parks have been helpful to his workers, and when they can, they buy them lunch as a thank you.

While some homeless people, particularly those troubled by substance addiction or mental health crises, sometimes prevent cleaning, Hausman pointed to the end of COVID regulations and an increase in events as the main driver of growing garbage.

"The biggest amounts of trash are in Lithia, Garfield, Mountain — these are parks where people are having birthday parties and soccer parties," Hausman said.

"With all the added traffic, we just can't get a handle on it by ourselves," he said, saying that under the city of Ashland contract, Pathway's workers can empty parks garbage cans only once a day.

Black blamed the trash in Lithia Park on its proximity to the Plaza, the heart of Ashland's tourism and restaurant industry.

He said too many visitors and Ashland citizens are using disposable rather than reusable materials, and people are filling cans that are too small to meet demand.

Black said he is advocating for the city to provide a larger dumpster and take the pressure off parks, but he also hopes individuals will take it upon themselves to produce less garbage in the first place.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at mrothborne@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne.