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Medford opens emergency shelter as temperatures plummet

Rachel had no space heaters or insulated walls to shield her from Tuesday night’s winter storm.

Instead, she and her dog, Tiva, huddled under blankets and a tarp, whipped about by winds

“It was hell,” said the 41-year-old, who preferred to be identified by her first name only. She had survived the night when the temperature dropped to 33 degrees, but had no plan for Wednesday, predicted by the National Weather Service to reach a low of 19 degrees in Medford.

Wednesday afternoon, however, unhoused people in Medford got an unexpected boost: First Presbyterian Church secured city approval and enough volunteers to open its doors as an emergency warming center with space for 50 people.

“Be careful what you pray for,” said Pastor Murray Richmond, laughing.

The night before, when Medford City Manager Brian Sjothun had not yet declared a severe weather event and no emergency shelter was available, Richmond said he and other volunteers handed out blankets to people sleeping outside.

“I felt really down that we weren’t doing enough to help people,” he said. “The next day, it’s like, ‘Well, looks like we are.’”

The shelter was set to open at 7 p.m. Wednesday and close again Thursday at 8 a.m.

Several churches have been working with the city on plans to operate “severe event” shelters since Medford City Council lowered municipal code barriers to smooth out the process.

First Presbyterian Church worked out a plan with the city, Richmond said, but didn’t have the volunteer power because many of its members are already involved with outreach, such as running its ACCESS food pantry.

Melissa Mayne with Compassion Highway Project marshaled the volunteers who will staff the shelter, which Richmond said will likely be open the next few nights if cold temperatures persist as expected.

“I’m so excited,” Mayne said. “Last night was awful, and it was so cold it took your breath away.”

Earlier in the week, Mayne said she was “so scared” about what could happen to people exposed to the storm.

“Every night I go out trying to keep people alive,” she said Wednesday. “I’ve been staying out all night trying to find everyone I can to keep them warm.”

Compassion Highway Project is seeking donations of blankets, sleeping bags, scarves, hats and gloves, which its street team distributes to people sleeping outside.

While the shelter at First Presbyterian Church is running, she said, donations of hot beverages such as hot cocoa and tea, as well as snacks, would also be welcomed.

In Ashland, Vanessa and Jason Houk were preparing for another night operating an emergency shelter that opened Tuesday night at the Ashland library.

Wednesday and Thursday, the warming shelter moved to the Bellview Grange, 1050 Tolman Creek Road, Ashland. Friday, it will move back to the library, Vanessa Houk said.

“We know our Ashland homeless community, and we’re seeing people we’ve never seen before,” she said.

While Compassion Highway Project recruited enough volunteers to get started, according to Mayne, the Ashland shelter could use a larger volunteer pool. Vanessa Houk said the three or four people who are monitoring the shelter are “stretched thin.”

Interested volunteers can contact the Ashland Police Department to undergo a mandatory background check before they can serve on shelter staff, Vanessa Houk said.

Service animals are accepted at both locations.

City and faith leaders expect that bumps will be smoothed out with the severe event shelters over time. Medford City Council only approved differentiating them from shelters such as the Kelly Shelter, which is now open year-round and application-based, at its Nov. 7 meeting.

The intention was to make it easier for churches and other groups to open shelters in the event of extreme weather, said Tanner Fairrington, deputy fire marshal.

“Now we’ve got policies that are basically guiding principles on minimum safety stuff,” he said.

Communities interested in hosting a shelter site can contact Fairrington at 541-774-2300.

In Medford, the Presbyterian church won’t immediately have beds to offer people, Richmond said. People will be allowed to bring whatever bedding they have with them.

“There’s probably 150 things that can go wrong, but people will have a warm place to sleep,” he said. “I was afraid to ask our folks to do it because I was afraid people would say no. And I was wonderfully surprised by the generosity of the people in this congregation and the people in this community.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.