A good-hearted effort to rapidly open a homeless warming shelter this winter in Medford has hit a rough patch as police report a spike in calls for service and building officials find fire safety issues with a basement area.
"We've had a lot of significant issues come up at that center," Medford police Chief Randy Sparacino said.
Over a one-month period, he received 33 calls for service at the Kelly Shelter in the basement of First United Methodist Church, 607 W. Main St.
The calls included disorderly conduct, theft, medical assists, suspicious activity, a sex offender and warrants, Sparacino said.
Building officials and Fire Marshal Greg Kleinberg have found issues with accessibility to the basement that would pose a problem during emergencies. A staircase leads down to the basement, posing a problem for those with disabilities who need to gain access or flee in an emergency.
"There are some major issues of fire in a basement area with limited access," Mayor Gary Wheeler told City Council Thursday.
Sparacino said the volunteers who man the shelter need to better scrutinize the homeless who stay overnight as well, citing a shelter in Bend that is run out of a former hotel and is manned by paid staff.
The Fire Marshal's Office has been trying to work with Rogue Retreat to resolve some of the fire safety problems.
"We can't enforce the fire code in one place and not another," Deputy Fire Marshal Ralph Sartain said.
To keep up with the requirements, Rogue Retreat has been pouring money into the shelter, installing a $17,000 fire sprinkler system, an $8,000 alarm system and other safety equipment. It also pays the church $2,000 a month in rent. Many of the improvements have been paid for through grants from ACCESS, Inc.
"We're constantly hitting a moving target," said Heather Everett, Rogue Retreat administrative director. "To be honest, we feel we're always one step behind what the city wants from us."
She said the additional requirements for the shelter mean more and more expenses for her small organization, such as for emergency lighting and exit signs that have brighter lights.
The shelter has been popular with the homeless since it opened, bringing in more people than could be handled during a night. The city has scaled back the number of people who can sleep there to a maximum of 55.
Many of the homeless placed their belongings nearby when they slept, but after the city noted the potential trip hazard, Everett now stores them in a separate locked room.
She said two amputees slept on a raised platform in an adjacent community room. One of the amputees found the platform easier for him to put his prosthetic leg back on in the morning.
Police, who routinely go through the basement at night, came in this week and told the amputees they could no longer sleep in the room because it wasn't designated as a sleeping area, she said.
Because the first and second floors of the church don't have fire safety alarms, Rogue Retreat is required to have a private security guard patrol the building at night, resulting in a $3,750 cost over the three months of operation.
Everett also disputes the nature of the calls police received, saying that 20 of them were for medical assistance, such as a woman who had chest pains.
"I'd say the biggest problem is miscommunication," Everett said.
The shelter will operate for only three months during the winter, not as a year-round facility, she said.
"This is a seasonal winter shelter," Everett said.
With the considerable investment, Rogue Retreat hopes to continue operating the facility each winter.
"Our goal is to do this year after year," she said.
Everett said she acknowledges that a below-ground location isn't ideal, but she said she's grateful for the church making the space available.
"It's the best we can do," Everett said. "I don't see anybody else volunteering a ground-level location."
Everett said she has asked City Council to hold a study session in the near future to discuss the issues with the shelter and to clear up any concerns.
Earlier this month, the shelter closed temporarily to regroup after it faced overcrowding, not enough manpower and lack of a fire plan.
The shelter was opened Jan. 13, just after the one-year anniversary of the death of Marine Corps veteran Kelly Eisenberg, who was found frozen to death in Hawthorne Park.
— Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.