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Inn from the cold

Melissa Mayne's one request from old St. Nick is the gift of warmth — for hundreds of community members without a home.

"It's freezing outside," says the Compassion Highway Project founder, who provides outreach services for the homeless from her house in west Medford. "It's literally too cold to even be outside for a few minutes, and they sleep in doorways and alleys and behind buildings. It's heartbreaking.

"I just can't even imagine being out in this with no hope of getting inside."

Armed with experience gained serving the homeless and a growing list of supporters who donate supplies, Mayne says her top priority this winter is to find a facility that can be used for an emergency shelter.

Similar services have been opened in other cities — Ashland churches take turns providing shelter on cold winter nights, for example — but a warming station in Central Point was shuttered after two winters.

Homeless shelters face issues ranging from problems between shelter visitors and neighboring property owners to zoning laws that prohibit non-residential buildings being used for overnight stays.

On a more basic level, however, Mayne says the inventory of vacant buildings in downtown Medford gives her pause.

"How can there be so many vacant buildings but not somewhere we can allow people to just get inside out of the cold?" she says, noting that even an empty warehouse would be "better than being outside."

Mayne marvels at the upbeat attitude of Lee Beam, a Medford man who has been on the streets off and on for a dozen years, most recently since leaving the veterans facility in White City three weeks ago.

"You better get inside and get warmed up," Beam warned Mayne one evening as she delivered hot coffee and a duffel bag filled with dry clothes and essentials to an alcove of a downtown building where Beam was camping out.

Beam, shivering in the 36-degree night, said he passes the time "sitting here and there, and there and here." A Marine Corps veteran who recalled the January cold of the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, Beam told Mayne that Medford was, at least, "warmer than Eugene."

"I pulled a couple winters in Eugene, and it felt like it was 9 (degrees) below zero for like a month and a half," he said, pulling his blanket around his shoulders.

"Now that's cold."

Mayne says she worries about a long winter ahead. Medford City Council members told her they were willing to entertain some options for a shelter if she could "just find a property owner that will say yes."

Chad McComas, a local pastor and executive director of Rogue Retreat, a local nonprofit building a "tiny house village" for the homeless on city property at West McAndrews Road and Columbus Avenue, said the need for a warming station is dire.

"We looked into it last year but found so many roadblocks that blocked any possible location. It's disheartening," he says.

"I think what we need is for some of the larger churches to step up, like the churches in Ashland do, to take turns providing a safe, warm place to be. The Gospel Mission opens its doors if the temperature gets below 32. But that isn't a solution for everyone.

"We need to find funding, then a location, then staffing."

Rich Hansen, a volunteer grant writer for St. Vincent de Paul of Medford and a member of the task force for the tiny house project, says the warming station topic is complex.

While St. Vincent provides more homeless services than most, from an urban rest stop with mail services, laundry and showers to housing for families, Hansen says emergency shelters face a host of challenges.

"We are unusual in the nonprofit arena as we are 100 percent volunteer and, like many nonprofits, our volunteers tend to be retired and, therefore, older. Running a cold weather shelter like they have in Ashland is very intensive work, and you almost need a salaried staff, plus volunteers, to make it happen," Hansen says.

"I suspect there are spaces that could work. The Elks Club sits empty on Central Avenue ... and I would think that any number of churches in town have space. There just hasn't been a concerted effort."

Incoming Medford Councilwoman Kay Brooks, while acknowledging challenges to finding property and funding for a shelter, agrees that the city needs to provide a warm space for vulnerable residents.

"In years past, we have lost members of the community during the winter to exposure and hypothermia," Brooks says.

"It's shameful that someone would freeze to death, sitting against an empty, heated building."

Despite the odds, Mayne says she is undaunted.

"We've gone around and asked some business owners, but so far we're hitting a dead-end," she says.

"I won't give up until I find a place, though. It is so hard to see empty buildings sitting there and to know there are human beings sleeping outside," she says.

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

Compassion Highway Project director Melissa Mayne meets with homeless veteran Lee Beam, who sleeps nightly on the street in Medford. Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta