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Home sweet home: Ashland couple enjoying home after years of living on the streets

For Anna Waleke, Ashland was just the place she drove past on her way back to Reno, until the day she forgot to fill up her gas tank in Medford.

She knew there was a mini-mart just off the freeway where she could gas up to get over the mountain. Even during that brief stop, Waleke could tell there was something different about the town and made a mental note. Not long after that pit stop she was back in town with her longtime partner, Don Williams, homeless but quite sure she was where she needed to be.

“I just felt this love,” Waleke, 45, said of her first few days in Ashland. “Anywhere else, they call us homeless. Like we’re dirty. Here they called us ‘unhoused friends.’

“I was like, wow. ... I’m a person that’s had some rough times, but it doesn’t mean that I want to live like that. There’s a lot of judgment in other places that I’ve been. But here, people cared. They’d give me five bucks and sit down with me and go, ‘What are your struggles, what are you doing? What can we help you with? What do you need?’”

It took time, plenty of cold nights in her car in the Havurah Shir Hadash parking lot, and a lot of help from organizations like Options for Helping Residents of Ashland and Home at Last, but now Waleke and Williams, for the first time in almost four years, finally have a place to call home.

The couple — they’ve been together about 20 years — received the keys to their first Ashland apartment July 3 in a moment that was surreal for both, because after everything they’d been through, walking through the door of their own apartment didn’t seem quite possible.

Only three years ago, Waleke and Williams, 54, were homeless in a place Waleke describes as brutal to the homeless population: Reno. There, Williams, already suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease plus permanent back pain and partial hearing loss from a hit-and-run accident, was stabbed on New Year’s Eve.

They moved to Ashland and soon were advised by locals to get in touch with the folks at OHRA, which, among other things, helps those who struggle with poverty gain access to the services they need. Sometimes that can be as simple as helping somebody electronically find and leap through all the hoops necessary to get a new driver’s license.

OHRA and lead resource navigator Lisa Smith helped Waleke get her license reissued in Oregon and land a parking permit so she and Williams could, on those nights when it wasn’t quite cold enough for the local winter shelters to open, park in the Havurah Shir Hadash lot. Even before Waleke made Ashland home, she sometimes would make the four-hour drive from Reno to Ashland just to take advantage of that parking spot. That may sound like a lot of work to sleep in a car, but Waleke said anybody who’s been homeless in a dangerous place like Reno would understand.

“I know it sounds silly,” she said. “Why in the world is a parking spot safe?”

But it was. Since then, over the past two years, Waleke and Williams have learned the ins and outs of being homeless in Ashland. The best hangouts. The migration from Safeway to the library, the only place in town whose staff allows homeless people to catch a nap inside during those simmering summer afternoons or chilly winter mornings. And, of course, OHRA.

One of the worst things that can happen to a homeless person, Waleke explained, is the slow, subtle acceptance of their homeless existence until that part of them feels more permanent than whatever came before.

“I was dirty and I was already beating myself up,” she said. “Even when somebody wasn’t judging me I’m like, ‘I know I look like s---, so I wouldn’t give me money either.’

“You kind of say, ‘I accept this.’ That’s just what it felt like. Like, I accept this life. This is what I have, this is what I’ve been, this is what I am. And so it was hard for me to stay clean because staying clean is all about goals and hope. ... And when you’re useless and you feel like you’re not going to go anywhere else, it’s easy to get high.”

Permanency for Waleke and Williams has been a challenge for a while. Besides Williams’ health issues, Waleke has struggled with drug abuse. Meth mostly.

While Waleke worked to break those chains, Smith worked to find permanent housing for the couple. When the pandemic hit and OHRA’s winter shelter closed its doors, they were hooked up with a free room in the Carlisle Garden Suites, a local bed and breakfast that Waleke said was the nicest place she has ever stayed. They ended up living there for three months, but Waleke and Williams knew that was only a temporary solution.

Smith connected the couple with Home at Last, an organization that helps chronically homeless people find permanent housing. Waleke and Williams credit Smith with sticking with them and helping them clear road blocks, one after another.

That persistence eventually paid off when Home at Last identified an apartment that would work, but in a discouraging twist it was quickly ruled out. It was an upstairs apartment, and Williams couldn’t lug his bad back up 17 stairs.

Not long after, the Home at Last caseworker found another place, one that was on the first level so no stairs. After spending years on the streets constantly wondering about their next meal and craving hot showers, Waleke and Williams at first had a difficult time accepting the good news.

“When ... we went and signed the paperwork, I really wasn’t believing it,” said Williams, who had been a professional furniture mover for 33 years before a hit-and-run driver brought those days to an abrupt halt. “It was one of those ‘pinch me to make sure I’m awake’ things. We picked up the keys, we got in here, and as soon as we got in here I looked around and said, ‘Wow, we’ve got a nice house, but we don’t have nothing. We don’t have a spoon, we don’t have a plate, we don’t have a cup, we don’t have nothing to sit on. It’s empty.’”

St. Vincent de Paul stepped in to fill that need, providing the couple with a “Welcome Home” box, a huge gift box stuffed with home essentials, all new, including food, a broom, bedding, coffee cups and so on.

“It was like Christmas,” Williams said.

Now, Waleke and Williams marvel at the turn their life has taken since moving to Ashland, and at the everyday kindness they’ve witnessed from strangers who have become friends. When temperatures soared not long after moving in, a neighbor brought over her spare air conditioner. When their Home at Last caseworker saw a free chair on the side of the road, she snatched it up and dropped it off.

Waleke was sitting in that chair Thursday morning, smoking a cigarette and recounting her story. She’s not afraid to laugh at the hard parts, or tear up.

Smith, who’s worked with countless homeless residents, remembers the moment she found out that Waleke and Williams had found a home. It’s the kind of revelation she lives for.

“Donny came in here,” she said. “He had one of those snappy little key chains around his wrist and he walked up the stairs and he goes, ‘Lisa, guess what this is?’ I go, ‘My friend, that looks like an apartment key.’ And he teared up. I teared up.

“This was a year’s worth of work for this couple. The struggles. They’re out on the street in the middle of winter and nowhere to go except for the shelter, and that’s only at nighttime. And he’s got significant health problems, and he’s going, ‘I don’t know if I can do this anymore.’ And I’m just going, ‘We’re not giving up, we’re going to get you there.’”

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

Anna Waleke and her family, who have been chronically homeless, have been staying in am apartment with the help of OHRA in Ashland. (Jamie Lusch/Ashland Tidings)