Ashland’s emergency winter shelter for the homeless is potentially unfit in the event of a heavy snow or ice storm, according to a city report presented to the City Council at a study session Tuesday. Engineers found beams insufficient for heavy snow and the floor faulty in several places, as well as issues with the historic fire place.
Three nights per week during winter, Pioneer Hall is open as a winter shelter. But it’s not enough according, to one councilor. “Three nights per week is not a solution to winter shelter,” said Councilor Traci Darrow. “We need to fix Pioneer Hall, but we also need a greater solution.”
City Administrator John Karns told the council engineers indicated it would still be OK to use Pioneer Hall with the exception when accumulations of six inches of snow or three inches of ice or compacted snow are expected. Periods of high winds are also a concnern.
Karns told the council homeless people in the shelter would have to be moved, should those extreme conditions occur. It’s not clear, he said right now, where the people would be moved.
The Ashland City Council discussed how it would respond to this information in terms of providing winter shelter. “What’s the plan?” said Greg Lemhouse. “'I don’t know' isn’t a good enough answer.” Karns responded that the information about the building is relatively new and they haven’t had time to formulate a plan, but intend to look into options for repairing the building and also making alternate plans for the emergency shelter as well.
The Ashland Community Center and Senior Center were suggested as emergency back ups. Shelter organizer Heidi Parker said she is not immediately aware of all the city buildings available, but the city could look into all viable options. Parker said, “It just requires people making a lot of phone calls and talking to a lot of people.”
Mayor John Stromberg told those assembled, the “real solution” is to fix Pioneer Hall and provide shelter seven nights per week.
Councilor Stefani Seffinger disagreed. “I think we have to look at solutions for families and children long term. I don’t know if fixing Pioneer Hall is worth the money. Maybe for this year, but I don’t think it’s right to have no place for children and young women who don’t always feel they have a safe place.”
Councilors were told by interim city Administrator Karns that it would cost thousands to prepare a study of how to fix the building. Councilor Dennis Slattery chafed at the notion. “We do not have the capability anywhere in our engineering to buttress the building? We have to pay $20 to 30 thousand to study it?"
Karns responded that the study funding would be included in repairs, suggesting it might take “$80,000 to repair the building. The study cost would be part of that.”
According to the staff report, Pioneer Hall, a log structure, was built in 1921, with the kitchen and bathroom added a few years later. The south wing, called the conference room, was built in 1988.
Most of the structure was found to be in good shape with no dry rot, but the header over the conference room and rafters in the log structure were both deemed insufficient support under snow loads. A seismic assessment found the stone chimney to be a falling hazard, and that the log truss at the front of the building needs reinforcement.
Mayor Stromberg had additionally planned to discuss winter shelters overall for the upcoming cold season, beyond a discussion of Pioneer Hall and its impacts. He invited numerous community groups and volunteers to offer reports.
But Councilor Dennis Slattery spoke up, saying that a discussion of shelter options was not on the agenda posted for the meeting, which only listed "Pioneer Hall Structural and Code Assessment Findings." Councilors Mike Morris and Greg Lemhouse agreed that the discussion would be outside the rules in that it did not give enough notice for the public to participate.
The mayor suggested a vote of the council to see if it wished to continue the conversation or postpone it. The mayor apologized for a miscommunication on the agenda. Councilors did not vote.
The half dozen shelter-related volunteers assembled to take part in the discussion told the council they waited for two hours in July to speak and had been put off then as well.
No solutions were offered to the group and they did not have the opportunity to give reports. A few spoke up that Pioneer Hall is a needed component in winter housing. The group was not notified of a date when they might be offered the opportunity to report.
Councilors did, however, direct staff to investigate other city owned locations for possible homeless shelters in the event weather precludes the use of Pioneer Hall. They balked at allocating money for a study of the building. Councilor Rich Rosenthal dissented, saying no matter the use of Pioneer Hall, it needs to be fixed. “We’re going to have to find money. This isn’t cheap. We don’t have engineers who can do this study and this specific type of engineering.”
In the end, the council decided to seek other options for the winter shelter in the event of extreme snow and not to fund the study of repairing Pioneer Hall.
— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.