After attending classes all day last fall and winter, Sharon Bahr would pass her evenings in Southern Oregon University's library, reading until closing time to put off the inevitable end to her nights: sleeping in her van.
Weekdays during her first two terms at SOU, Bahr, 41, was effectively homeless.
The honors student has a home in Cave Junction that she shares with her husband and her two daughters, ages 15 and 21, but the three-hour roundtrip drive to Ashland left her exhausted and without any time to do her homework, she said.
Bahr couldn't afford to rent an apartment or a room in Ashland, since she was already shelling out for the home in Cave Junction. And she didn't want to force the whole family to move to Ashland, because her teenage daughter was on her way to becoming a valedictorian at her high school.
Lack of bus service
There are a handful of SOU students like Bahr who live an hour's drive or so from Ashland and — instead of facing the daily commute — are opting to sleep in their cars or on friend's couches.
This trend concerns Danielle Mancuso, interim coordinator of SOU's Commuter Resource Center, who is working to increase bus service in Ashland and create routes from the university to outlying cities, such as Grants Pass.
A university survey of 370 students found that about 78 percent would use public transportation if it were more readily available, Mancuso said.
She recently presented the Ashland City Council with the results of the survey, which also included responses from seniors living at Mountain Meadows, who would like more transportation options. The closest bus stop is about 1.5 miles away from Mountain Meadows — too far to walk for most of the seniors that live in the retirement complex.
Mayor John Stromberg directed the city's Transportation Commission to take up the issue and SOU officials are scheduled to speak before the commission next month. Mancuso hopes the commission will use the university's survey data to expand bus routes and pick-up times.
Weekdays, the last Rogue Valley Transportation District bus leaves Palm Street, near SOU, at 7:30 p.m., makes stops in town and heads to Medford. The last bus from Medford to Ashland leaves at 6:30 p.m. on Medford's Front Street, near SOU's Higher Education Center.
"Most classes end at around 10 p.m., so it's just pointless," Mancuso said. "They can maybe get there, but they can't get back."
There is no bus service for students on the weekends and no service from Ashland to cities beyond Medford, such as Grants Pass, she said.
Students' homeless period
More than a conveniently located room or apartment in Ashland, increased bus service is what Bahr wants most, she said.
"It would be really nice if there was transportation because then I could see my family, who I miss very much," she said. "I could do my homework on the bus."
Last fall, after transferring from Rogue Community College's Grants Pass campus and realizing she couldn't commute to Ashland, Bahr bought a $600 used Volkswagen van on Craigslist, a Web site for classified ads. She folded the seats down to form a makeshift bed and sewed floral and plaid curtains for the windows out of scraps of cloth.
For awhile, she parked in an SOU parking lot — until a police officer rapped on her windows and asked her to move one night. Then, her friend offered to let her park the van in her driveway and use her toilet and shower in the mornings — something that felt like a luxury, she said. Beforehand, Bahr had trekked to SOU's Higher Education Center in Medford to shower during the week.
All the while, Bahr was acing her classes and searching for scholarships as a way out of her somewhat-homeless situation. Last month, the standout SOU student was awarded a scholarship by the Ashland Association of University Women, and upon hearing about her living situation, the selection committee took it upon themselves to find her a room in Ashland. Were it not for the committee's help and the generosity of an Ashland couple who let her stay for free, Bahr would still be sleeping in her van, she said.
Still, she wishes there was another option: bus service from Grants Pass to Ashland, running every 30 minutes or so, she said.
"It would just make it a lot easier if we could bridge the gap between here and there," she said.
Grants Pass resident Beth Pierce, 44, is another SOU student who has resigned herself to crashing at her friend's house on weeknights, because she can't afford the costs of commuting: gas and wear and tear on her car. Plus, Pierce is involved in a federal work study program at the university, so she often puts in long days on campus.
"There was no way I could do it," she said. "My financial aid package wasn't a complete package."
Now, Pierce sleeps in the bed of her friend's young son, while the son sleeps with his mother.
"It's stressful," she said of the situation. "I just feel so awkward about it. If there were a bus system, I would definitely utilize it."
Mountain Meadows seniors
Coupling the students' needs with those of Mountain Meadows residents made sense, because both groups want the same thing, said Laura O'Bryon, SOU's dean of students.
"Those two groups make up about 20 percent of the population in Ashland," she said.
Gideon Wizansky, a 77-year-old Mountain Meadows resident, said many seniors there feel stranded.
"Right now we have no bus service," he said. "There are people that can't drive, and for them to get to the city or to a doctor's appointment, they have to take a taxi which is about $10 or $12 one way."
O'Bryon would like to see increased bus service to cities such as Talent, Phoenix and Medford, as well as extended pick-up hours in Ashland, so that students and seniors can take the bus downtown on evenings and weekends. However, SOU officials are depending on city officials to figure out details of how — or if — increased bus service would work, she said.
"The goal is to share the information with those who are in decision making positions as far as meeting the needs in the community," she said.
Although Bahr and Pierce have done well academically — both were recently accepted in to the prestigious Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, a federally funded doctoral program — at times their living situations distract them from their studies, they said.
"It's really made the adjustment to coming to SOU really hard," Bahr said. "It's made it far more difficult than I ever could have imagined."
Contact staff writer Hannah Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.