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Ashland warming shelter weathers storm of controversy

The residence of Lithia Motors CEO Bryan DeBoer and his wife, Stephanie, is next door to the Ashland warming shelter at Pioneer Hall. DeBoer recently sent an email to city officials detailing problems they face living next to the shelter. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]
Pioneer Hall on Winburn Way next to Lithia Park is used as an emergency shelter when temperatures fall below freezing. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]

A complaint sent in the middle of the night from one of Ashland’s most well-known citizens to the city’s top government officials insisted on changes for the city’s warming shelter, spurring a series of conversations and a growing understanding that something has to give for Ashland to continue offering its severe weather shelter.

Bryan DeBoer, CEO and president of Lithia Motors, sent an email Nov. 4 to City Manager Joe Lessard — and carbon copied to Ashland City Council, Mayor Julie Akins and Parks and Recreation Director Michael Black — complaining that the warming shelter, located next to his house on Winburn Way, was causing problems in the neighborhood.

“There are so many violations we have documented, and this season is starting out worse than ever before. Where does it go from here — we’re too afraid to find out??? You are our neighbors in a zoned residential area and are not acting as such,” DeBoer said in the email.

“I grew up planting trees, carrying dirt, moving rocks, cleaning up trash and weeding in this park, and we, like many others, are in love with its beauty,” said DeBoer, referring to Lithia Park, which borders his yard.

“We currently have a landscape easement to take care of the southern portion of Pioneer Hall, and though we love to do it, it’s been a ton of work, cleaning up trash, drug paraphernalia, poop and so so so much more,” he wrote.

He listed human waste found in plants on his property, scattered trash, public urination, theft from his property, hostility from city staff, registered sex offenders allegedly near the Lithia Park playground, blocking of their driveway, fire hazards in and around the building, people smoking cannabis and cigarettes, dog fights and homeless people camping in the area.

Due to insurance liability issues, Ashland cannot run its own shelter, and it currently does not offer funding nor staff for the emergency shelter at Pioneer Hall, which is opened when extreme heat or extreme cold are forecast.

“The city doesn’t do anything. They just send out an email saying, ‘We’re calling the shelter,’ and that’s it,” said Avram Sacks, a volunteer who helps organize and train volunteers for the shelter.

The city recently changed the threshold for opening the warming shelter. It used to open when a low of 28 degrees was forecast. Now 32 degrees triggers the shelter. Sacks estimated the change could mean the shelter will be open as many as 60 days this winter.

Pioneer Hall opened as a warming shelter for the first time this year Nov. 7, but only for breakfast and dinner. Between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m, the doors were locked because there weren’t enough trained volunteers willing to work through the night.

“Somehow we’ve always been able to come up with the people. This time we said, ‘No, we’re sorry. This needs to be done properly. You should have been planning this all summer. We should have had trainings.’ We told them we don’t want to run the risk of working without trained people,” he said.

Sacks confirmed homeless people have been camping in the area near Pioneer Hall because the shelter has been locked overnight. People are camping nearby so they’re close when it opens on cold mornings.

“There’s always been challenges from the neighbors, no matter where we hold the meals for the homeless or the shelters,” Sacks said.

“I’ve often wondered what it would be like if we did a reality show where we picked 50 middle-class Ashlanders at random, and had them sleep on a thin pad on the hard floor overnight with all those other people, how they would do. I think it would be quite comical,” he said.

In his email to city officials, DeBoer asked the city to find a new location for the shelter and return the building to the community. He offered financial and volunteer help from himself and his wife, Stephanie. Reached by email, he said it isn’t the first time.

“We had and still have one goal in mind: help the city of Ashland develop a permanent homeless shelter in Ashland. We have offered to the city and P&R (Parks and Recreation) to financially assist in both a permanent homeless shelter and the improvement and betterment of the Winburn corridor a few times over the past three to four years,” he said.

Lessard said he and city staff are doing what they can to follow up with the DeBoers, given the limited resources available to the understaffed city.

“We’re trying to find a long-term solution, but this season we still have to try to address the immediate, urgent need,” Lessard said.

Since the email, two meetings have been held between the DeBoers and city staff.

When city staff received DeBoer’s email, Mayor Julie Akins said, a public meeting already was planned for Nov. 5 at Pioneer Hall to consider improvements for the city’s warming shelter.

“I told Bryan, ‘Hey, we’re having this meeting, why don’t you come and share some of your concerns?’ And he and Stephanie both came,” Akins said.

Akins and Lessard attended, along with Jason and Vanessa Houk, volunteers with Ashland’s Peace Meal, and some of the city’s homeless residents, she said. When the DeBoers shared their concerns, the conversation was compassionate.

“The Houks gave him their personal numbers and said if he calls, they’ll be there. Members of the houseless community said they were sorry he had that experience and they would do what they can to police the area,” Akins said.

Since the meeting, she said, Stephanie DeBoer has been taking muffins to the shelter. Bryan DeBoer confirmed Stephanie had been attempting to build bridges with their neighbors.

Lessard and Akins also met with the DeBoers Nov. 9 at Case Coffee.

“I’d love to see (the warming shelter) at the Grove,” Akins said. “They like the Grove, as well. They helped raise money for the Grove. Its original purpose was to help at-risk youth and unhoused youth, so this would be helping that building realize its destiny.”

Councilor Gina DuQuenne, who has served as council liaison with the city’s Housing and Human Services Commission, agreed she also likes the Grove, which serves as a multipurpose building for Parks and Recreation.

If there’s snow on the roof of Pioneer Hall, Sacks explained, the roof may cave in. During last year’s white Christmas, snow eliminated Pioneer Hall as an option, and the city was forced to use the Grove, he said.

“There’s no kitchen (at the Grove); it’s not really a great space to be,” Sacks said. “It’s a nice, big space, but there are too many places people aren’t supposed to be, and we don’t really have a way to control them.”

Someone’s dog got into an office and defecated on the floor, he said, while someone else found a place to camp on the property and was not found for three days.

“It’s interesting to me — as long as I’ve been in Ashland — winter comes around like Christmas. It happens every year: People are scrambling trying to find shelter for the houseless,” DuQuenne said.

Parks and Recreation Director Michael Black said, over the years, he’s watched Pioneer Hall change from a meeting place to a building periodically opened as a shelter while its neighboring building, the community center, has been completely closed.

As a recipient of DeBoer’s email, he said he understood the request to “return the building to the people of Ashland.”

“I agree with Bryan. I think that those two buildings are great community assets, right downtown, right across from Lithia Park where people want to gather,” Black said.

“It’s not just that they need to be opened up, or that we need to put the houseless somewhere else. They (the buildings) need to be invested in. I think that’s what Bryan is speaking to.”

ZCS Engineering was tapped by the city to investigate what it would take to repair Pioneer Hall and the Community Center. During the Nov. 14 City Council study session, Stephen Chase, a lead designer with the firm, presented its findings.

Due to the age of the buildings, some structural features are failing. There have also been changes to the seismic code that require updating, particularly for Pioneer Hall, the older of the two buildings.

Pioneer Hall’s roof is too weak to bear much weight from snow, Chase said, but it can’t endure much wind either. The floor is not in the best load-bearing condition, so there shouldn’t be many people in there at any one time, he said.

Neither building is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Neither building has proper fire exits.

Chase broke down the cost estimates into tiered priorities — a menu designed to allow the city to chose from basic utility up to fixing every problem and increasing energy efficiency.

For Pioneer Hall, to fix everything, the firm estimated $283,002. For the Community Center all repairs could cost over $1.6 million.

During the meeting, councilors debated the potential for purchasing a new building or selecting an alternative from the city’s properties. They also briefly discussed that funding in some form may be required to keep the shelter going.

Residents of Ashland have complained on social media and elsewhere in recent months about the rising cost of living and homeless camping. People identifying themselves as homeless have complained of poor treatment.

Councilors Tonya Graham and DuQuenne confirmed residents of Ashland have complained to the council about homeless camping and concerns about the warming shelter.

Lessard said he has not heard from residents, but he has heard from the Ashland library in its struggle with people camping or using the bathroom in inappropriate places.

There is a Porta-Potty near Lithia Park, Black said. Bathrooms in the parks are locked up after dusk, but people often find ways to get in and bed down for the night.

Throughout the Ashland Parks system, homeless people are creating refuge for themselves where they can find it, and parks employees are cleaning up around or removing camps, he said.

“I don’t even hear about it anymore. Once in a while I’ll ask, and they’ll just tell me the latest. It’s something that they keep to themselves because it’s just become part of being a parks employee these days,” Black said.

Akins focused on the competing but compelling needs of the various facets of Ashland. The DeBoers, like other homeowners, want security and a nice town to live in. Those without homes want safety, too, and they are acutely vulnerable to the weather and other dangers, she said.

“What if we took everyone’s concerns seriously and worked to find win-win solutions?”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at mrothborne@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne.