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Few options for shelter

While recent storms have prompted most Rogue Valley residents to either play in the snow or seek warmth inside, Michael LaConte says he can't help but think of the people in his community who don't have either option.

Battling homelessness since age 19, the now 53-year-old is part of a small task force that began in earnest last year to find property to develop a permanent campground and a "tiny house" village for the homeless.

The projects have been a tough sell on local communities because of concerns over a sometimes difficult population, but LaConte and other advocates are determined to establish long-term housing options in time for next winter.  

Spending most nights trying to stay warm in a secluded spot along the Bear Creek Greenway with his service dog, Khaleesi, LaConte voices frustration with the lack of resources and with restrictions on camping for transients he says have no other options. Local shelters come with restrictions on how long people can stay and eligibility requirements not everyone can meet.

The Jackson County Homeless Task Force, co-chaired by LaConte and Rogue Retreat Program Director Heather Everett, has been actively working with local officials to navigate zoning requirements and expectations for the two housing options.

While the tent camping option, ideally, would create a community feel and offer organized, legal camping closer to resources, the tiny house option would be a stepping stone for those who want to leave homelessness behind.

"There was a time I was married with a family — a journeyman carpenter with the union," LaConte says.

"One day is all it takes for everything to change. In this valley, if you don't have small children or you're not a veteran or in some other group, you're kind of on your own."

Several warming stations, sites that offer a safe place to rest when temperatures become dangerously low, have closed in recent years.

Local churches say it's tough finding volunteers willing to spend long nights under difficult circumstances. A warming station at Calvary Church in Central Point closed after safety concerns at the shelter and myriad issues with the surrounding neighborhood. Another site nearby offered meals and supplies for a time, but was not permitted to provide shelter.

Aside from the Medford Gospel Mission, the valley's only current emergency shelter is a four-day network in Ashland, where churches and a community group offer shelter on different nights around town. The Ashland option is open regularly, not just during freezing temperatures, but the location is difficult for Medford's homeless and the three-day gap in service is a concern on the coldest nights.

Rich Hansen, a grant writer for St. Vincent de Paul, urges the group to challenge local churches.

"For whatever reason, churches in Ashland have been able to lay down the law and get some cooperation. So the question is, 'How do we make that happen here?'"

While St. Vincent offers an umbrella of services, from an urban rest stop for laundry and showering to hot meals and temporary shelter for families, Hansen admits that overnight shelter for the homeless is the toughest issue to tackle.

"One night a week would be a lot on our volunteers — and it would be a long night — but seven nights a week would break the system," Hansen says.

"We could do one night if other places would step up, too."

Chad McComas, Rogue Retreat executive director and pastor of Set Free Christian Fellowship, says his church could sign on for a group effort like Ashland's.

"The best solution is for all the churches to jump in and each do a little. If they can come up with enough to cover four days in Ashland, that should be doable for Medford," McComas says.

"Doing (a warming station) every night isn't possible, but I could do one of the nights if we find other churches to do the same."

LaConte encourages the group to screen some of those in need of shelter to train as volunteer labor.

LaConte said the task force's effort to forge ahead gives him hope.

"There are a lot of nights where it really does feel like there aren't any options and the hours go by awful slow when it's freezing cold," he says.

"I'm able to keep going because of what I'm part of here and because it's important to me that we accomplish what we're working towards.

"I know what it's like to be up and I know what it's like to be down. It's a slippery slope and it doesn't take much for that slope to turn into a 90-degree drop-off."

For resources, shelter information or to donate to the proposed campsite, visit online at http://www.rogueretreat.org.

The task force welcomes community members with input for available properties or ideas on creating a network of emergency winter shelters. To contact Everett, call 541-499-0880.

Reach Medford freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffp76@yahoo.com.

Homeless advocate Michael LaConte, who is also homeless, gets a kiss from Khalessi, a service dog that helps him weather life while living along the Bear Creek Greenway. Mail Tribune/ Denise Baratta