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Homeless need help to shelter in place

When a pandemic strikes, it’s awfully tough to stay home and stockpile groceries when you’re without a place to live.

County officials, local agencies and community volunteers will jumpstart a program Friday to ensure homeless community members are fed and able to shelter in place for the duration of the coronavirus restrictions.

Initiated by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office and county officials, the program will provide meals and other essentials seven days per week along the edges of the Bear Creek Greenway, from north of Central Point down to Ashland.

Steve Lambert, operational group leader for Jackson County Emergency Operations Center, said the already-vulnerable population faces special challenges due to their transient nature, with many homeless people suffering preexisting conditions, increasing their risk from COVID-19.

“Our sheriff started a discussion last week about ways that we could keep our homeless population on the Greenway instead of in town where they’re infecting each other. We want to keep them safe, and we want them to shelter in place like everyone else. We worked on this all weekend,” Lambert said.

Anticipating 150 meals per day to start, the county jail food service program will provide “brown bag-style meals” with extra sustenance for the duration of each day.

Jackson County is partnering with ACCESS Foods, which donated use of a delivery truck and driver, Mercy Flights and local agencies that already work with and are trusted by local homeless people.

“A Jackson County sheriff’s deputy and a parks employee will start at the north end of the Greenway around 11 a.m. Friday and drive toward Ashland, finishing by about 1 p.m.,” said Lambert, noting that county deputies began spreading the word earlier this week about the meal plan.

“The goal is that they will meet congregations of people on the edge of the Greenway trail, per CDC recommendations, We’re not interested in going into camps. We don’t want to potentially bring the virus to them. We have also stopped all Greenway sweeps during this. We don’t want to be telling anyone to leave the Greenway. We want them to stay where they are.”

Lambert said with shelter and food already a daily struggle for homeless people, virus-related business closures and reduction in outreach services had made living outside increasingly difficult.

Around the state, communities are grappling with how to protect homeless populations and provide them with options.

Earlier this week, volunteers in the Portland area worked to convert the Oregon Convention Center and a pair of community centers into homeless shelters, while cities around the state announced temporary bans on outdoor sweeps typically performed to discourage homeless campers.

To encourage good sanitation, Lambert said restrooms and handwash stations were being positioned along the Greenway, and medical care would be available via Mercy Flights at least twice per week.

State Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, was encouraged by efforts to protect the homeless community and ensure they are cared for during the pandemic. Marsh said another issue that arose was that a large percentage of the community volunteers who often serve the homeless fall into higher risk categories due to age or other health conditions and were being forced to forego volunteer work.

“It’s a very difficult situation, and we’re all doing our best to both acknowledge best practices of the CDC and to try to figure out how to take care of people here in Jackson County who are most in need. One thing that seems to be happening around the state is that we’re finding a lot of our volunteer energy has dissipated because people are unable to volunteer under these circumstances. A lot of our volunteer core find themselves in the new high risk category, and it’s especially important that they’re staying home right now,” said Marsh.

“Everything we’re seeing nationwide is that we want to support people staying in place as much as possible. Whether you have a brick and mortar or a tent to live in, we want you to try and stay there. We want to keep an eye on people. We want to make sure they’re safe. And we want to make sure they have basic supplies and survival equipment.”

Marsh and Lambert said some details for the new program were being worked out but could include camping supplies to ensure people’s needs are being met to allow them to stay put.

Marsh said it was impressive to see the community come together to find solutions for virus-related problems cropping up on a near daily basis.

“I can’t remember how many times I’ve used the word ‘unprecedented’ in the last week, because there’s really no other word. So much of what’s happening ... it really is unprecedented.”

Local municipalities who contributed toward the Greenway meal program include Medford ($5,000), Ashland ($1,500), Talent ($300) and Central Point ($300).

Lambert said people interested in volunteering in various capacities, such as senior meal delivery or food distribution, should email parks volunteer coordinator Brooke Amposta at ampostBA@jacksoncounty.org.

To donate to the meal program, email Lambert at lambersm@jacksoncounty.org.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneLaura Chimeo hands out homemade soup Tuesday at Hawthorne Park in Medford.