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Central Point shutters warming station before it opens

CENTRAL POINT — The city has ordered a local church to not open its warming shelter for the homeless this winter, citing liability concerns and complaints from neighbors.

City Administrator Chris Clayton sent a letter to Calvary Church officials last week warning that opening the warming station at Pine and south Fifth streets could jeopardize the church's ability to operate at all.

"If a fire starts in the church in the middle of the night or someone is assaulted or something bad happens, the city would be liable," Clayton said. "So the council decided that the city, at this point, needs to enforce and regulate our code."

The shelter opened in 2009 after a homeless man in Medford froze to death. Though a homeless shelter is not permitted in a commercial zone, city officials allowed it to operate because it served a vulnerable population. But the shelter evolved from an emergency reprieve from the cold to a five-day-per-week facility with hot meals, dog kennels, camping supplies, shower facilities and a place to sleep overnight, and neighbors began to complain of noise, trash and other problems.

Clayton said the city sympathized with those in need of the shelter but had to make decisions for the community at large.

"In all honesty, the city sees that they're trying to do a good thing here, and we wanted to let it go on for as long as we could, but when this lady wrote and asked us to please deal with it before they open, we knew it was time," Clayton said.

Warming station coordinator Paul Tucker said Calvary Church would not fight the city on its order to close the warming shelter, but volunteers were torn on where to draw the line in terms of providing food and supplies.

"Our desire has never been to fight with the city but simply to help the community," Tucker said. "These are people, and I think people fail to see that.

"If any one member of the City Council had to stay outside for just a few cold nights, I think they'd have a lot better understanding of why we needed to do this."

Tucker said the church will still provide a food pantry.

"We're doing a Thanksgiving potluck this Sunday but we're not even allowed to advertise," Tucker said last week. "We tried one year and the city made us get a permit.

"This is our City Council, but these people live in this city and their rights are important, too."

Clayton said the church could apply for a conditional use permit that would allow providing limited services — not an overnight shelter — but that approval was unlikely because of past issues.

"It's a tough situation because the church had the best intentions," Clayton said. "Helping people that need to be in out of the cold is absolutely the best thing to do, but we have to look at things from a broader perspective and protect all of our constituents, and surrounding business owners want the zoning laws enforced.

"The city is hopeful that resources in the valley will provide for people who need it — that when people want to get in out of the cold they can do so."

Greeted Saturday by a sign stating that the church's food pantry was closed Friday because of the Thanksgiving holiday, transients Mary Bailey and Rick Lemich rested in nearby Pfaff Park, feasting on a chunk of roasted turkey provided by a neighbor.

"We tried to go get some food but it was closed. There's not too many places to go. It's kind of sad a place doesn't have food on Thanksgiving," Bailey said, acknowledging she had heard that the warming station would not open this year. Having relied on the facility in the past, Bailey said she understood neighborhood concerns.

"When it first started, it was OK, but some of them knew they could get away with more than at the other places. Here on the streets there are certain people who mess things up for everybody," Bailey said.

"It makes sense to have homeless people help volunteer and maybe give input on how to set it up, but you need people at the shelter that can control them."

Bailey, who said she's a victim of domestic violence and has been homeless multiple times, voiced frustration at the cycle of setting up camp, being "herded like cattle" by local police and "constantly having to start from scratch."

"The warming shelter gave us bedding and clothes and something to eat in the morning before we left. It was a place we could rely on when it got really, really cold out here," she said.

"It makes things easier if you get a job to know, if you're living outside, that after work you can get something to eat and sleep and stay someplace warm. I think it's going to be a really cold winter and they're going to lose a lot of people out here."

Reach Medford freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

Mary Bailey, 34, and Rick Lemich voice their concerns about dwindling resource for local homeless as city officials announce that they will forbid local warming shelters from opening this year in Central Point. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch