ASHLAND — There’s no such thing as a Free Box in town, at least for now.

Recology, which runs the Ashland Recycling Center on Oak Street, closed one of Ashland’s more unusual features on Friday, Feb. 3, when three needles were allegedly found by an employee among the donated items inside a walk-in storage shed in the center's parking lot.

“My concern went to safety of my employees and, frankly, the community,” said Recology General Manager Gary Blake. “Safety was our concern.”

He says he hopes to reopen the Free Box but does not yet have a timeline. “I haven’t seen anything like it, before and certainly there are some individuals who feel strongly about the Free Box.”

Blake said he did not personally verify that the needles were found and did not see them. “I didn’t witness the needles. She was not, fortunately, stuck by the needles. Two had caps, one did not. I assume they had been used,” Blake said, based on an employee’s statements about what she said she found in the Free Box.

The Ashland Free Box has shelves for clothing, shoes, toys and occasionally books or other household items. Anyone can donate and anyone can pick up items for free with no questions asked or a paper trail. It was open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. References to the Free Box have been removed from the Recology website, but it had previously been described as a clothing and shoe exchange.

The Recycling Center has had the Free Box in operation for more than a decade. “This is the first time this has happened,” Blake said.

The Free Box had a bit of controversy previously when a picnic table and benches which sat alongside it in the shade of a tree were removed. It had been a gathering spot for people — some who were homeless — who would frequent the Free Box, trade items and sometimes volunteer.

“We wanted people to be able to get in and out of the parking lot,” said Blake, of the removal of the seating area that was on a grassy patch above the curb next to the Free Box. No parking spaces were adjacent.

There is no promise to re-open the Free Box, but Blake said he is working to find a solution. “It’s my hope to find a way forward,” he said.

He said he has received feedback from the community. “It’s a special thing. The community loves it," he said.

Homeless advocate Leo Gorcey says the Free Box is an Ashland institution. “This isn’t a small thing. It’s huge.”

Gorcey says while many in the community use it, it’s the homeless and marginalized who are most affected. “Let me tell you how the homeless feel about it … they think it’s a godsend. Here’s why: it’s located near town, and it’s absolutely necessary for people who cannot afford to shop for clothes. Adults, children and families all use it.”

Blake says he wants to reopen the Free Box while maintaining safety. “It doesn’t benefit anybody if we have a needle stick, the person is medically monitored for a year. It’s more than an inconvenience.” Blake also said he suspects it was deliberate. “I’m assuming it was intentional. It’s a shame this happens because of an individual.” He, however, said he has no specific person or persons in mind.

He said he has been approached by citizens and groups willing to assist in getting the Free Box reopened. “I’m very appreciative. It’s one of the pathways forward. At one time, there was a greeter. That may be something. I know there are volunteers and folks willing to do this.”

Among them are members of the Ashland Culture of Peace Commission. Ambassador Bonnie Cohen said ACPC is looking into ways to facilitate the needs of the community as it pertains to the Free Box. “The Free Box is a valuable resource to our community, and we are exploring how to best support the ongoing availability of it. As someone who personally utilizes this resource, I am looking forward to the conversations to be had around making it a sustainable thing.”

—Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at julieanneakins@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.