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Volunteers return award, tell city to 'step up'

Four local residents asked Ashland City Council on Tuesday to “step up” its efforts to feed and house the homeless residents of Ashland.

Two of them, Jason and Vanessa Houk, were recipients in 2018 of the James M. Ragland Volunteer Spirit Community Service Award, given for their volunteer work within the community. They returned the award to the city at Tuesday’s council meeting.

The Houks, employees of Southern Oregon Jobs With Justice, volunteer most of their free time helping homeless residents.

“I know the satisfying feeling of carrying heavy pots of food to a table for our hungriest neighbors. I know how heart-stretching it is to look across the table and see the sweet faces of the community we serve — elders, babies, everyone in-between — people who have suffered trauma you and I can’t even imagine,” Vanessa Houk said. “They look across the table at me with great love. This community is often painted as different from you and me, but what I’ve learned throughout the years is that we are all connected. We are our brothers’ keeper.”

She said the award comes with great responsibility with its legacy of decades of volunteerism.

“We look forward to a day in the near future when I can once again write about a community Peace Meal and say how my feets is tired, but, oh, my soul is rested,” Houk said. “That’s what compassion looks like.”

She pulled the plaque from where it sat on her lap and marched up to Mayor John Stromberg.

“I know this is unusual, but here,” Houk said handing the award to Stromberg.

She then left the Council Chambers followed by a small group of community residents.

Volunteers who put on the free community Peace Meals five days a week recently announced they were halting the meals for the time being because of multiple obstacles.

One was losing their access to Pioneer Hall, where they have served meals consistently for the past four years.

According to Houk, the city Parks and Recreation Department offered to let them use the building for nine Thursdays through August, but the times were sporadic, which doesn’t work for the homeless population, who do not have an easy way to find out when the meals are scheduled.

In addition, Southern Oregon Jobs with Justice would have had to start renting the hall. The volunteers previously used the hall for free, but with the closing of the Community Center this spring, the hall is now in very high demand.

The meals were moved to the gazebo at Railroad Park, but volunteers said they received a lot of pushback from neighbors who did not want homeless people gathering in the park. Many people quit going to the meals, she said, because they felt threatened. More volunteers stepped in to act as “peace holders” during the meal, but it didn’t do much for morale.

Then, Southern Oregon Jobs with Justice received a no-cause eviction from a warehouse it rented on Hersey Street, which it used to collect and organize donations to give to homeless people, and to stage some food preparation, such as warming up crock pots before the meals. The eviction notice requires the group to vacate the building by the end of June.

Volunteers said they have been brushed off by the city with the excuse that staff have been occupied with an overwhelming budget process.

Amy Stewart spoke before the Houks Tuesday, saying that the free service volunteers provide for homeless residents of Ashland is something the city should be bending over backwards to assist with, considering the constrained budget.

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

Courtesy photoJason and Vanessa Houk returned the 2018 James M. Ragland Volunteer Spirit Community Service Award to the city at Tuesday’s council meeting.