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Ashland outreach organizations struggling to meet needs of homeless

It didn’t take long for the effects of the novel coronavirus to trickle down to the people who didn’t have homes or jobs to lose in the first place, and that’s who Jason and Vanessa Houk, organizers for Southern Oregon Jobs with Justice, have been trying to protect.

The Houks are part of a community-wide effort to help Ashland’s homeless gain access to food, shelter, bathroom facilities and electricity at a time when many, thanks to skyrocketing unemployment, are losing the means to give. Add to that the fact that the novel coronavirus pandemic also has directly impacted housing options for the homeless, and the enormity of the challenge facing Jason Houk and his fellow volunteers becomes apparent.

“We’re looking at options,” he said, “because we have a community of folks here in Ashland that just have no place to go because they have no shelter.”

There are roughly 83 homeless people living in Ashland, according to Jackson County’s 2019 Point In Time survey — 11.6% of the county’s homeless population — and many of them found themselves unexpectedly exposed to the elements when Options for Helping Residents of Ashland closed its winter shelter (42 beds) on Sunday, March 22, eight days before its scheduled closing date, to help limit the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19. Making matters worse, the city, in another safety measure, decided last week that Pioneer Hall could no longer be used by SOJWJ for its Ashland Community Peace Meals.

The food part of that equation has been at least temporarily solved by way of a partnership between SOJWJ, OHRA, Uncle Food’s Diner and the Ashland Community Resource Center. Volunteers from Uncle Food’s Diner and SOJWJ are preparing 70 to 80 meals a day, Houk said, then delivering them to six drop-off locations throughout Ashland starting at 4 p.m.

After Pioneer Hall was taken away the Houks scrambled to find another kitchen. A SOJWJ volunteer happened to know the pastor of the Shepherds Way Church on East Main and reached out. Now, the meals are being prepared at two churches — the Shepherds Way on Monday, Thursday and Friday and First United Methodist Church on the other days.

Monday marked the first day of the new food distribution system, and Houk said volunteers are taking every precaution to make sure the meals are safe.

“We always follow all the proper food safety guidelines regardless,” he said, “because it’s a community that can’t afford to get food poisoning or sick. But we’ve really added an extra layer of protection. When we’re using the space the only people allowed in the building are the volunteers that are doing the food prep. We require everyone, as soon as they walk in, to wash their hands. Everyone’s wearing gloves, we’re doing the social distancing and then wiping down surfaces again and again. And a lot of the food that we’re going to be distributing is going to be pre-packaged, so nuts and chips, crackers, energy bars, bottled water, because we want to make sure everything that goes into those bags is safe and healthy.”

Basically, he added, volunteers are following the guidelines put forth by the Oregon Health Authority.

SOJWJ has also organized a food and supplies drive for this Thursday, April 2. Volunteers will be accepting pre-packaged food as well as basic supplies between 1-4 p.m. at the Shepherds Way Church, 599 E. Main St., which will be distributed along with the daily meal later that day. Houk is encouraging people to donate hand sanitizer, toothbrushes, band-aids, garbage bags, tarps, rain ponchos and feminine hygiene products. Prepared foods like casseroles will not be accepted.

While volunteers like Houk have managed to quickly organize drop-off meals for the homeless, shelter and showers have so far proven elusive. Houk had been holding out hope that the city-owned Hardesty Property, a 21-acre parcel at 1291 Oak St. purchased in 2018 by the city, could be used as a temporary camping spot — the property even has portable toilets and an outdoor shower. But Ashland City Administrator Kelly Madding denied SOJWJ’s request, citing the risk of a coronavirus outbreak and the complications of a city-run homeless camp.

“Second,” Madding wrote in an email addressed to Vanessa Houk, “no one in Ashland, or Medford for that matter, has demonstrated that they can operate a campground for the unhoused. Such a campground is a complicated endeavor, and I don’t believe this is the time nor is it prudent to provide city-owned space for something untested and likely unsafe.

“There are other reasons as well: the property is in the County and not zoned for a campground; Public Works is using the area for vehicle and equipment storage; and the City Council at their last meeting gave Council direction on funding to keep the OHRA shelter open another month but didn’t favor a campground.”

Exasperating the problem, Houk said, is the fact that local motels are refusing to rent rooms to the homeless.

Madding, in her letter, went on to describe a partnership between the city and OHRA that will open up a limited number of parking spaces for “car camping.”

That’s already happening, but Houk hopes another, more humane solution can be found soon.

“Part of the strategy has been to give people tents and sleeping bags, but we don’t really have any legal place to go with that equipment,” he said. “We’re just really right now trying to address any reason why the city says (the Hardesty property) wouldn’t work and trying to figure out how it would work.”

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

Jamie Lusch / Ashland tidingsCass Sinclair, director of Options for Helping Residents of Ashland, passes out food Monday to a homeless man in Ashland.