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'You can't ignore it'

To Don Dolan, spending the night with Ashland’s homeless at Pioneer Hall is a little like camping out, but with less sleep and more background noise — snoring, mostly, and the opening and closing of bathroom doors.

And even though, he admits, he does it not with a joyful heart but out of a sense of obligation, the 79-year-old retired actor says getting through the 12 ½-hour night shift isn’t all that difficult.

“I’m a backpacker,” he said, “so I take my tube air mattress down, and a sleeping bag. It’s no different than being on the trail as far as being comfortable.”

Of course, comfort is a relative term, but for those who find themselves deciding between the foam pads and blankets of Pioneer Hall or one of the other two winter shelters staffed by OHRA (Options for Homeless Residents of Ashland) and the streets, Pioneer Hall isn’t so bad. Especially if Dolan comes with pizza, which he usually does.

“I do that,” he says, “because I figure if I was homeless, I’d be hungry all the time.”

Dolan, best known for playing police chief Guy Lewis on "General Hospital," is one of 60 volunteers who occasionally give up a night to sleep alongside the homeless at Pioneer Hall, First Presbyterian Church or Trinity Episcopal Church. One of those shelters is open Monday through Thursday. On the other three nights, Ashland’s homeless must rough it in the streets, unless the forecast calls for the temperature to fall to 20 degrees or below, in which case an emergency winter shelter is organized and staffed.

Heading up the whole operation is OHRA board president John Wieczorek, who’s also the chairman of the Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Social Justice and Action Committee.

Of the 60 volunteers, Wieczorek says, there’s a core group of about 20 who, like Dolan, volunteer consistently. Dolan, who was recruited by Wieczorek (they’re neighbors), handles two shifts a month.

Though plenty have stepped up to volunteer, Wieczorek, 50, says more help is always welcomed. Volunteers go through a screening process that includes a background check. Since Pioneer Hall is city-owned, the city of Ashland pays for background checks.

For those who can’t spend the night at a shelter there are other ways to help those in need. Carla Tchack, 51, makes three-course meals whenever she can for those who use the shelters. On Thursday, she whipped up chicken pot pie, a salad and a dessert.

“It makes me sad that it’s needed and happy that they’re enjoying a warm meal,” she said. “They’re very appreciative.”

At first, Tchack said, anybody who showed up — the shelters average about 20 to 22 guests, but 27 arrived Tuesday — just ate whatever she brought at their bed, but once she started bringing food on a regular basis, they started setting a table and eating together.

“They like the warm type of food that momma made at home,” said Tchack, who also makes and delivers burritos to the homeless every Sunday. “I just want to help out.”

Dolan feels the same way.

“I thought, well, I gotta help out,” he said. “And once I did it was a no-brainer. I had no expectations. It’s just something that needs to be done. You can’t ignore it.”

The night shift begins at about 7:30 p.m. when those in need — often hungry and tired from spending the day battling the elements — begin to arrive at whichever shelter is open that night. Wieczorek estimates that about half go to sleep almost immediately.

“When you spend hours in temperatures like this your body is burning calories you don’t even know you’re burning,” he said.

The supplies are bare bones: foam pads and blankets for sleeping on the floor. Food is not promised, but almost always arrives, said Wieczorek, either from one of the all-night volunteers or people like Tchack who feel compelled to give what they can.

There’s not a lot of space, either. When the numbers swell to 25 or more, each person has about five feet between themselves and their immediate neighbor.

“It’s like a big slumber party,” Wieczorek said.

Who are they? Where do they come from? It runs the gamut, says Wieczorek, who works for Gateway Real Estate and prefers the term “economic refugees” to homeless. The age range is huge, 20s all the way up to 60s. Some are regulars who have called Ashland home for years, while others are merely passing through on their way to somewhere else.

“They’re here maybe a week or two weeks, a month, until they can get some traction, then they’re gone,” Wieczorek said.

Those who don’t just walk in the door and disappear under the nearest blanket stay up and read, play cards or break out a board game. Wieczorek says most of the all-night guests are avid readers. At 9:45 p.m. it’s lights out, and from that point on anybody who leaves the building is not allowed back in — a rule that’s been put in place to avoid disruptive comings and goings.

Occasionally, they make an exception. There is, after all, a human element. One night, Dolan was awakened by the sound of the front door opening. When he went out to investigate, he found a man smoking. Dolan gave him a five-minute warning. After that, he said, the doors would be locked for the night.

Another night, Dolan was forced to kick out a man who was clearly drunk — another rules violation. Dolan felt bad, but knew it was for the best.

“I hated doing it because you know what he’s up against,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s still a society and you have to follow the rules. But I try to be very gentle. You don’t want to get in a confrontation and make it escalate.”

Yet another night, a man sat at the piano and began playing. The tune was nothing Dolan recognized — maybe improvised, maybe not. Everybody just listened. Dolan pushed the curfew that night until 11.

Guests must be out by 7:30 a.m., after which the all-night staff — which numbers two to three per night — cleans up the building and leaves by 8.

What about those nights in which temperatures drop below freezing but are not cold enough to require the city’s emergency shelter response?

Wieczorek is hoping that the city will raise its temperature threshold to 30 degrees, but in an effort to help make the cold nights endurable, OHRA has distributed about 80 zero-degree sleeping bags to the homeless. The bags include a hood and are made to withstand extreme cold.

“I’ve heard a couple comments on those bags, that they’ve saved their lives on the nights when there’s no shelter,” Wieczorek said. “If you have a pad to go under it and a tarp to stay dry, then you can survive when it’s that cold. But it’s not as nice as being inside.”

“I honestly can’t imagine,” Dolan said. “I’ve seen them hunker down in doorways of places, which gives them some help. I don’t know what they do out in the woods. I’ve spent a lot of days out there (backpacking), but because I want to. They have to.”

— To volunteer, call John Wieczorek at 541-482-8230.

Reach Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Joe Zavala at jzavala@dailytidings.com.

Timothy Ritner, a homeless man living in Ashland, panhandles in front of Safeway. When night falls, he has a place to stay at one of Ashland's shelters run by volunteers. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch