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Winter shelter has new location, services and faces

The Ashland winter shelter opened Nov. 4 in a new location with a new lineup of services and helpers.

Options for Helping Residents of Ashland, the nonprofit facilitating the shelter this year, recently received a $58,000 grant from Oregon Housing and Community Services for winter shelter operations, and OHRA hired a new shelter director, Cass Sinclair, who started Oct. 28.

After about seven years of community members and organizations piecing together makeshift winter shelters through various means, this is the first year the shelter will operate seven days a week at a single location.

Last year several faith organizations stepped up to host the shelter, but they had to set it up and take it down at a different space each night.

OHRA now has a permit for three years to operate the shelter at the old Baptist church at 2082 E. Main St.

This year the shelter has 42 beds, with the potential to host a couple more people on the floor if necessary, eight more beds than last year, said OHRA President Ken Gudger. They also have beds for four overnight hosts instead of the two they had last year.

According to the 2019 Statewide Shelter Study, Oregon needs an additional 5,814 beds for the homeless people identified in the annual point-in-time count released this year. It also shows that the estimated number of homeless people living unsheltered in the state has increased 37% since 2015, which is nearly double what is was in 2015.

The study showed that Jackson County had 712 unhoused people, an increase of 12% since 2017.

Officials say the surveys provide the only regular count of homeless people, but the estimates are often far below the actual number because people experiencing homelessness often don’t want to participate in a survey.

In Ashland, each shelter guest is guaranteed a bed for the five months the shelter operates, through March 30. They also receive help to become more stable, whether that’s getting connected with health insurance, drug rehab, documents such as a social security card, housing or job connections.

“That’s a lot for somebody to know that they have a safe place to sleep for five months,” Sinclair said. “They’re super excited that they have a home, and they’re already starting to get jobs and get connected to resources.”

Sinclair said she’s already seen one person find housing in the two weeks they’ve been open.

This switch from first-come, first-served to consistent care has been proven to help people move from homelessness to stability, which is OHRA’s main mission.

They also have a bus to transport guests to and from the shelter. Sinclair said they’re flexible with where they drop off guests and will try to get them as close to where they need to go as possible.

Sinclair, who has served in numerous nonprofit positions and with Jackson County Public Health, most recently served as the syringe exchange coordinator and community outreach coordinator for communicable disease.

“Two-thirds of my clients were homeless living on the Greenway, and they can’t get an ID or a job or health insurance, and it creates this cascade effect,” Sinclair said.

She said housing is the first step in stability. Having a safe and warm place to stay at night and having help attaining the necessary documents to work is key.

She said a lot of people who suffer from drug addiction and are homeless are stigmatized in our society, and that population doesn’t seek help, but being a familiar face they can trust helps to break down those barriers.

The Ashland winter shelter is a low-barrier shelter, which means guests do not have to be clean and sober when they come into the shelter, but they are not allowed to use drugs or drink on the property.

They must obey the rules of respecting each other, volunteers and the property to keep their bed.

“When we acknowledge that people are living with substance abuse, we’re meeting people where they’re at,” Sinclair said. “When people get connected to programs and services, removing a requirement of having them be sober is addressing their needs without stigma.”

The shelter currently has no waiting list, but Sinclair said as it gets colder, the shelter will fill quickly.

Guests apply for a bed between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday through Friday at the Ashland Resource Center, 611 Siskiyou Blvd. In the application process guests are screened and placed in the shelter based on their needs.

At the new location, the shelter offers a 20-by-30-inch bin to each guest in a locked room to secure some of their larger possessions, which gives them more mobility throughout the day.

About half of the guests in the shelter were there last year, Sinclair said. Last year 16 guests found permanent or temporary housing through connections with the shelter.

Each night at the shelter is sponsored by a different faith organization or community member who organizes volunteers to set up the space, cook meals, clean and stay overnight.

Sponsors include First Presbyterian Church, Temple Emek Shalom, Havurah Shir Hadash, Avram Sacks, Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, First Congregational United Church of Christ, Trinity Episcopal Church and the Quaker Friends Meeting.

An estimated 200 volunteers are working this season, but volunteers and funding are always needed for the shelter, Gudger said. The grants the shelter received this year haven’t covered all the expenses.

Sinclair said the shelter can also use gloves, socks, rain ponchos and hats for guests.

City Administrator Kelly Madding said the city will work with OHRA this year to operate an emergency winter shelter any night the temperature drops below 20 degrees. Madding said the city is trying to collaborate with faith organizations to use a building people can sleep in. In the past Pioneer Hall has been used, but last year the city’s insurance agents said Pioneer Hall could not be used for sleeping.

“Housing people in the winter saves lives,” Sinclair said.

To get involved with the winter shelter, call 541-708-6434 and leave a message, or email shelterdirector@helpingashland.org.

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

Russell Wilson is among the residents at Ashland's new winter shelter. Photo by Denise Baratta
Volunteers Kathy Wixon, left, and Stephanie Baum serve dinner to shelter residents. Photo by Denise Baratta