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Social workers take aid message directly to homeless youths

Aaron Reed doesn't look like a typical social worker, and he doesn't wait for clients to come visit him in an office.

Sporting tattoos, a baseball cap and sunglasses, Reed was out on Ashland's downtown Plaza on Monday, where he had organized an open mic for homeless youths and others to share music and stories.

Representatives from social service groups in the Rogue Valley sat at tables nearby, offering shampoo, soap and toothbrushes — along with information on services to help homeless people survive life on the streets or make the transition back into regular life.

The Ashland street outreach coordinator for the Medford-based social services organization Community Works, Reed works part-time reaching out to homeless people between the ages of 11 and 21. His job is funded through federal money plus an $8,250 grant this year from the city of Ashland.

He said his personal appearance can be an asset when trying to connect with homeless youth.

"I'm approachable," Reed said, noting that he also connects with the young homeless population through music. "They care about music, art and they are spiritual in their own way. The young homeless population in Ashland reflects the 'housed' population."

Reed, who sang several songs while playing the guitar at Monday's event, walks Ashland's streets two to four days each week, striking up conversations with homeless people. He hands out his business cards, along with brochures that list a 24-hour help line for homeless teens. The brochures also have information about temporary foster care for homeless teens, a youth shelter in Medford, Job Council resources for youths to gain employment skills, substance abuse treatment and places to get meals.

Reed also lets homeless youth know about other services being offered in Ashland.

Manning a table at the event, recent Southern Oregon University graduate Emery Way of the advocacy group Phronesis said it was good to get organizations together in one place.

"For the homeless, they can see what resources are available. Also, the community at large can get information on the issues and find out about opportunities to help out," Way said.

Aubrey Sharp gave out toiletries at a booth about the Maslow Project, which is a Medford resource center for homeless and at-risk youths and their families. Maslow Project representatives are in discussion with Ashland School District officials about bringing more services to Ashland, said Sharp, a Maslow Project case manager for unaccompanied youth.

The Maslow Project provides hygiene items, clothing, school supplies, extracurricular activity fees and other help to allow homeless youths to graduate from high school, earn their general-equivalency diplomas or get into college, she said.

Jim Martin of the First Congregational Church of Ashland was at a table letting people know that showers are available at the church on Mondays from September through June. Church members take a break for a few summer months, he said.

"People say, 'We can eat anywhere, but we can't get a shower,'" Martin said.

Martin said he doesn't give to panhandlers, but now when he walks through downtown Ashland, he talks to homeless people rather than averting his gaze.

"It breaks down a barrier between them and us," he said.

A young homeless man, who gave his name as Scott, said he had been debating the worth of the Monday event with others that day.

"We were wondering if it helps people get out of homelessness — or into homelessness. If a kid is contemplating running away and he hears you can get free meals and he won't be sitting on the sidewalk hungry, it might make the choice easier to run away," Scott said. "I would have an event where parents are invited to talk about why the kid is unhappy. It's almost like they're saying, 'Hey kids! Come be homeless runaways.'"

Scott said it isn't easy to be homeless in Ashland, especially when it comes to getting enough sleep. Ashland bans camping in public places and has no homeless shelter.

A young transient who gave his name as "Snapdragon" said he was glad to see the social services providers proactively reaching out to homeless people, while also raising awareness in the community about homelessness among youth.

"Awareness is always nice," said Snapdragon, who said he pans for gold to pay for his travels across the country.

Vickie Aldous is a reporter with the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach her at vlaldous@yahoo.com or 541-479-8199.