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Shelter from the storms

Saturday night at the Ashland winter shelter doesn’t really begin until Peter McBennett whips out his ukulele and starts playing his greatest hits.

The mini concert, which the 56-year-old volunteer has dubbed “an off-key wonder,” has become a weekly tradition since he first felt compelled to sing to the 40-some guests during one of his overnight shifts at the shelter.

“I started bringing it a month ago, and I had all kinds of trepidation because I’m not proficient,” he said. “But I love to sing, and I’m told it has a calming effect.”

The same might be said of the winter shelter’s relatively new permanent placement at the site of the former Rogue Valley Baptist Church at 2082 E. Main St., where 45 beds are available each night for guests who have nowhere else to go and, after a registration process, have been deemed the most vulnerable for the program’s wraparound services.

The winter shelter is in its 11th year of operation, but this is the first year it’s being run out of the same building every night after a decade of bouncing around, a process that required a cadre of volunteers to break down and build up a makeshift shelter each night at a different building (usually a church).

That all changed last fall, when the nonprofit Options for Helping Residents of Ashland received a $58,000 grant from Oregon Housing and Community Services for winter shelter operations, secured a three-year permit to use the building on East Main and hired Cass Sinclair as the shelter’s new director beginning Oct. 28.

Exactly one week after Sinclair’s first day, Nov. 4, the shelter opened. It will close its doors for the season March 30.

According to Sinclair, who previously worked as the syringe exchange and community outreach coordinator for communicable disease for Jackson County Public Health, the change to a permanent location has been a major win for the staff, the volunteers and especially the guests, many of whom have tapped into OHRA’s resources to gain employment and housing.

“The guests feel like they’re home,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll be here at night and I’ll come in and the dining room tables will be moved around and they’re like, ‘This is what we’re doing tonight.’ Great. ‘If that’s what you guys want, great.’ So it gives them that sense of ownership. They have their own bunk, plus they have a bin room where they get to store their things every night ... and that means that they can travel light during the day. They don’t have to carry around their backpacks and carry all their stuff around. They can go to an appointment in Medford or go to a job interview or go to work.”

McBennett, who’s in his eighth year as a winter shelter volunteer and well acquainted with the set-up-tear-down method of previous seasons, says OHRA’s ability to park the shelter at the same spot all winter has been a godsend. Guests who are granted a bed after filling out an application at the Ashland Resource Center, 611 Siskiyou Blvd., are bused to and from the shelter, which is permitted for a 7:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. run time each day.

“We never even did seven days ... we always had to cobble it together,” he said, “and they’d schlep their stuff around, and a couple nights a week they’d sleep outside. What’s happened with being at one site is everybody’s healthier. Boom, just like that. Everybody’s healthier and their mental state is just so much calmer. There is such security knowing you’re going to be going to the same place every single night. The attendance has been steady all year, whereas when we had to jump around last year people would come and go.”

Sinclair says the shelter housed 43 guests Wednesday and has been filled to near capacity all winter — 14 are currently on the waiting list. Some stay for weeks or longer while Lisa Smith, OHRA’s lead resource navigator, helps them negotiate the pitfalls of homelessness. As of two weeks ago, Sinclair said, the shelter had housed 80 people this winter. Of those, 12 have found permanent housing and 11 landed jobs.

Smith, who meets with each guest to form an attack plan every morning starting at 6:30 a.m., five days a week, says every guest has a unique set of challenges. It’s her job to use the partners and various resources at OHRA’s disposal to problem-solve.

“Yesterday, I had a lady come in that was just leaving a domestic violence situation,” Smith said. “Her ex-husband had burned her birth certificate, so we ordered a birth certificate. I had her call the Dunn House and sent her to (the Department of Human Services) to get a domestic violence grant. We meet people where they’re at, so she came in and she’s like, ‘I don’t even know where to start.’”

OHRA requires a strong volunteer workforce — 340-plus each season, says Sinclair — to keep the winter shelter humming. Sinclair, Smith, fire-watchers and the bus drivers are on staff, the rest volunteer. A different faith-based organization supplies dinner and breakfast every day, usually making it in its own kitchen, hauling it to the shelter and cleaning up before heading out for the night. That leaves the fire watch plus two volunteers to keep an eye on things during the night.

Or pull out their ukulele. McBennett says he gets a good four hours of sleep on average during his Saturday night shift. Considering all the noise that goes along with an open dorm room packed with 40 people, he said, five hours of sleep qualifies as a phenomenal night.

Usually, not much happens after he’s done taking requests — “Tom always asks for ‘I’m An Old Town Hen,’” he laughs, before breaking into a verse. But occasionally things get dicey, and that’s when McBennett, who’s seen firsthand what substance abuse has done to a loved one, leans on his experience.

“I have had no special training,” he said. “It’s an open mind. ... I have read online about certain (de-escalation) techniques, but I called the mental health line of Jackson County when this woman was having a severe psychotic episode, and the guy on the phone told me, ‘You know, you’re just as equipped as I am to handle this. If you call the cops right now, they can’t arrest her, so what are you going to do with her?’ It was like, oh, my gosh, I guess I am the guy.

“So it is a restless night. You’re kind of waiting for things to happen, and when they don’t it’s a beautiful night. And when someone does need some calming, the most effective thing I do is give people a cough drop and a glass of water. For the heavier stuff, I get them out of the room.”

OHRA President Diane de Ryss and Executive Director Michelle Arellano are very pleased with how the shelter has evolved at its new permanent home and point out the significance of some of the more subtle touches, from the storage lockers that allow guests to leave their backpacks (and the stigma attached) behind to the popular reading room.

It’s all come together to create the kind of atmosphere they hope will lead to more success stories, like the one Arellano saw come to fruition Thursday afternoon. That’s when a man in his 30s, who Smith had been working with, dropped by to share some exciting news. Thanks to some Veterans Affairs benefits he wasn’t aware he had access to, he had found a home. Arellano gave him a high-five.

“The look on his face,” she said, “was priceless.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

The Ashland winter shelter has a permanent location on Main Street just outside city limits. Ashland Tidings / Jamie Lusch