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'This isn't going away'

Experts on homelessness told Ashland City Council members during a Monday study session that the largest gaps in city services are found in food services, the lack of a 24/7-hour homeless shelter and the lack of affordable housing.

Councilor Julie Akins, who requested this topic, said she hopes this discussion was eye-opening for the other councilors. She said talking about the issues is the first step in finding solutions. The council members present agreed that further discussion is needed on the issue.

After the meeting, Akins said that while the city doesn’t necessarily need to provide a 24/7-hour shelter, it should work to break down barriers for organizations that have the resources to provide such a service.

Chad McComas, executive director of Rogue Retreat, explained to the council that his organization has been able to make so much progress with safe havens and shelters in Medford because that City Council has paved the way for progress.

He said Medford has been working with the state to allow two villages of tiny homes to operate within a single community, and are raising funds to do so. He said it takes several organizations working together with the help of grants to build these types of resources.

“There’s a spirit to do something in Ashland, and if we can come forward and make a plan and identify a property, we can have a village up and running in no time,” McComas said. “I think another tiny house village could be very beneficial for this community.”

Vanessa Houk with Southern Oregon Jobs with Justice also spoke on the community peace meal availability in Ashland. Currently, meals are only offered four days a week.

She said the organization has been struggling ever since it lost its office space last June.

“The consistency that the winter shelter and peace meals provides, it makes a significant difference in the quality of someone’s life who struggles with mental illness,” Houk said.

Cass Sinclair, winter shelter director for Options for Helping Residents of Ashland, said the shelter has had 95 guests this year.

“Having a place where they can be for five months has made such a difference,” Sinclair said.

The winter shetler wraps up its first year in a single location this spring. The shelter, organized by OHRA and its volunteers, provides wraparound care for the guests, but several Ashland residents asked for a 24- hour shelter, year-round during the meeting.

Akins said as a nation about 60-70% of people are roughly a $400-$600 emergency that would cause homelessness, adding that roughly 18% of Ashland residents live below the poverty line.

“As policymakers, our role is to figure out how to remove barriers so organizations like Rogue Retreat and OHRA can do what they need to do to serve the homeless community,” Akins said.

She said this is a problem every community will have to face because wages are not meeting the cost of living and there are more and more working poor and homeless each day. She said she wants the city to step up before the situation becomes more dire.

“This isn’t going away,” Akins said. “I wish we didn’t even have to have this conversation, but this is where we are in history and I hope we deal with this now before we meet a tipping point. If we don’t do it now we’re surely going to have to do it later, because it’s coming around the bend.”

Contact Ashland Tidings freelance reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at caitlin.fowlkes@gmail.com.

file photoAshland City Council held a study session Monday on homelessness.