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City eyes using The Grove as a winter shelter

A request to use The Grove as a temporary winter homeless shelter did not meet a positive response at Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission’s Monday night meeting.

Kelly Madding, city administrator, was tasked by the City Council to research possible shelter locations. According to Madding, the First Presbyterian Church of Ashland is the only faith-based community to come forth. The church has offered to host the shelter Friday through Sunday, meaning the city still needs to find a host for four days a week to meet its goal of providing a homeless shelter every night during the winter. Her presentation was made to APRC because APRC owns the building. It was not intended for a decision to be made right away.

Pioneer Hall is owned by the city and has previously been used as a winter shelter, but due to structural issues that would need costly remedial work it cannot be used this year for overnight accommodations.

“They couldn’t lay down and sleep,” Madding said. “When it snows, no one can be in Pioneer Hall. There are a couple of impediments to us using Pioneer Hall.”

Options for Helping Residents of Ashland (OHRA) has applied for a permit to operate a temporary winter shelter out of the vacant former Rogue Valley Church at 2082 East Main St. The nonprofit, formerly known as Options for Homeless Residents of Ashland, changed its name this year because much of its work is with people who aren't homeless, but are at risk of becoming so. The permit has yet to be issued, so the request to use The Grove for four nights for a maximum of 90 calendar days was presented. Ideally, it would only be used for a short period, possibly 60 days or less, and then the shelter would move to the vacant building.

Cots similar to bunk beds would be purchased if the Grove were to be used, and other security measures would be taken, including the possible installation of an alarm-triggered door to the offices within The Grove.

Executive director of Rogue Retreat in Medford, Chad McComas, explained how the shelter would operate on a reservation model. He said the first year that Rogue Retreat operated was by first-come, first-served. It was, he said, chaotic, and a line of people flocked the street all the time, but since they began vetting people and reserving beds, the shelter isn’t even noticeable.

McComas said they vetted people to find who really wanted to get off the streets and was willing to work to do so, and that it was usually the same people every night. In the second year, they brought in case management and were able to work with the homeless on the issues specific to them to help them overcome.

“Within a four-month period, we got 40 people off the streets,” McComas said. “The chief of police said to us that our shelter is a model shelter.”

Although OHRA has never operated a shelter in this manner, they will be working closely with McComas to model the shelter after Rogue Retreat. OHRA Shelter Consultant Phil Johncock said this is the 11th year Ashland has operated a winter shelter.

“It’s pretty amazing that the faith organizations and the nonprofits have stepped up,” Johncock said. “We are now able to offer case management and the screening that’s needed. We have over 100 volunteers, and safety is our number-one priority.”

Southern Oregon University, the Ashland School District and some private facilities responded in the negative to city inquiries about possible facilities to host a shelter.

Madding said The Grove has more space than other city offices which would allow less people to be displaced when transferring between the temporary shelter and the church. Madding said the fire marshal has tentatively approved 36 people in both the church and The Grove.

“The grove has open space that a lot of our buildings don’t really have, because most of our buildings are offices,” Madding said. “In addition, I was looking for something that could resemble the occupancy that the Presbyterian Church has.”

However, the users of The Grove were not happy with this suggestion. Five out of the six community members that spoke during the public forum portion of the meeting said they were pro winter shelter, but they didn’t want The Grove to be used. Students, a teacher and the husband of a teacher all had similar ideas that it’s not fair to the people that have paid for the use of the facility to be displaced.

Ashland resident Perii Owen had suggestions for other buildings. She said the issue of homelessness is a county-wide problem, so she first suggested the Jackson County Fairgrounds.

“Fairgrounds are notoriously famous for being empty in the winter they have big bathrooms and lots of space,” Owen said.

She also asked why Ashland couldn’t work with Talent and Phoenix to use one of their many vacant buildings. Her final question was about the Briscoe School building that the city recently purchased.

Madding said that there is a childcare facility program that has leased a portion of the Briscoe building and is currently breaking even for the city and that the mixed use would not be conducive.

Commisioner Rick Landt said that the mixed use of The Grove for this purpose isn’t conducive either, yet the problem has fallen on APRC’s table.

“You could break the contract (at Briscoe School) and you could do it there the same way you’re asking parks and rec to break our contract with our users,” Landt said. “Unless I have some assurance that all the problems created are addressed, I just don’t see how I can support this.”

Landt and the other commissioners agreed that until the problems have been solved for The Grove’s users they do not want to approve the request.

Rachel Dials, recreation superintendent, said that if shelter use displaced some of The Grove users, the Presbyterian Church and fire station No. 2 could be used to house language classes during the winter, but no location has been found to rehouse the dance classes.

It was decided that a subcommittee would be formed to iron out the details and see if a compromise can’t be reached. The plan is to make a decision by the Monday, Nov. 19, APRC meeting.

Contact Daily Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

(Oct. 24: Story updated to use OHRA's new name, Options for Helping Residents of Ashland, and explain the name change.)

The grove on East Main Street is the new home for the Ashland parks and recreation department. Daily Tidings/ Denise Baratta