Peace Meals on hold
Hungry Ashland residents used to be able to find a hot meal every day of the week, but for now there will be only two meals a week.
Uncle Foods Diner will continue to serve a Tuesday meal at Ashland First United Methodist Church, 175 N. Main St., and Ashland resident Komac Tapp will still serve soup at the Lithia Park Gazebo on Sundays.
But community Peace Meals put on five days a week by Southern Oregon Jobs With Justice volunteers have been discontinued. The last Peace Meal was held last Friday at Railroad Park.
According to volunteer Vanessa Houk, the group was given a no-cause eviction from a warehouse facility it had been renting on Hersey Street. The space allowed some food to be staged and donations to be gathered and sorted to give to hungry and homeless people.
The eviction notice stated that the property must be vacated by Monday, June 20, said Houk.
The free meals were offered for many months in Pioneer Hall but had mostly moved to Railroad Park a few weeks ago.
For nearly four years, the Peace Meals operated at least one day a week, Friday, inside Pioneer Hall for free. Because of the new winter shelter model, city parks officials allowed Jobs With Justice to serve meals at Pioneer Hall five days a week since last November.
After the Ashland Community Center was closed earlier this year due to structural issues, Ashland Parks and Recreation had to prioritize which groups could use the other two indoor parks facilities — The Grove and Pioneer Hall.
Volunteer Lisa Ostos said the meals were about more than just feeding hungry people.
She said most agencies that help homeless people in the area close by 5 p.m. weekdays, which meant that the Friday Peace Meal was a last resort for some.
Ostros remembered when someone came in without shoes on a winter Friday evening, and a volunteer could run to the warehouse where donations are kept to grab a pair of shoes for the person.
Vanessa Houk said a 72-year-old woman once was dropped off at Pioneer Hall from the hospital. Volunteers scraped up enough money to buy her a hotel room for the weekend and feed her. They started working with her, and now she’s housed in Medford and has a social worker who checks on her weekly.
Jason Houk said there’s a large number of homeless women, children, veterans and mentally unstable people in Ashland, and the Peace Meals were the only meal many got on a daily basis.
“It’s going to be a rough summer,” Houk said.
Ostos said allowing a safe space for the most vulnerable population helps curb crime. Being able to feed someone and check in on them, making sure they’re taking their medications, talking to them and having a normal human interaction can ease so much stress and desperation, and people count on that, she said.
“The stop to the meals is going to change the dynamic in town,” Ostos said. “People who are mentally ill and hungry are going to become agitated. Mothers who can’t feed their children are going to steal food. Things are going to change in this town in a really negative way.”
Vanessa Houk predicted crime is going to spike in the middle of tourist season.
“Homelessness is not going to go away,” she said. “Crime is going to go up because people’s needs aren’t being met. People are going to get desperate.”
Jodi Cordova, who lives directly across from Railroad Park, said she supports the meals, but she doesn’t think the park is an appropriate place for them, saying the meals have brought some negative behavior to the area.
She said she saw an intoxicated man pull down his pants and urinate in the park in front of children.
“I think it’s a good cause, but there needs to be a better venue,” Cordova said. “Any other place I’ve lived before, the city has to have a backup. The city should be responsible for having a place to feed the homeless. When you throw them out and the community has to pick up the pieces, the pressure is a lot to deal with.”
She said having the meal in the park five days a week is a lot of pressure on the neighborhood because of the crowd that hangs out before, during and after the meals.
“Nobody wants to see that in their front yard,” Cordova said. “There are a lot of people who are respectful, but there are a lot of people who aren’t respectful.”
City Councilor Julie Akins said the city of Ashland has made it clear the homeless are not welcome.
“I am tired of saying churches should feed the hungry and clothe the naked,” Akins said. “We as a community should do this with our tax dollars instead of continuing to court bigger, better public buildings like City Hall, where the people who pay for it are not truly welcomed. We will make this worse by pushing the poor and marginalized populations back against the wall. It’s perceived they have no power, so they can be abused. But that’s not true. I truly believe the cavalier attitudes of this city is creating an explosive situation.”
Jason Houk said City Council had granted SOJWJ a $13,000 social services grant May 21, but the city has made no other efforts to help them find a location to hold the meals. He said volunteers were told the city was focused on the budget process.
Anyone with information about Ashland locations to hold the Peace Meals should call Jason Houk at 541-841-8341.
Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at email@example.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.