In the quiet, windowed chapel of the Rogue Valley Universalist Unitarian Fellowship a group of 40 or so activists came together this week to plan for the inevitable — a cold winter that will swallow up those who find themselves without an indoor place to sleep.
Kelly Ray Eisenberg, 58, died in Hawthorne Park in Medford last Dec. 31 and four people died in the first 10 days of January in Portland as snow and cold weather gripped the state. Ashland did not have any recorded deaths from exposure, but it's a concern that drives those gathered at the Fourth Street Church forward. They are seeking 24-hour, seven-day-a-week shelters, especially during the winter.
Currently, Ashland has five nights covered.
“We have a lot of support in this community; 200 people volunteer in shelters,” Sharon Harris told those gathered as she laid out plans for a single location created by private, donated money to house the homeless. “The city doesn’t want to be in the shelter business anymore. We need one safe location and to become more privately funded.”
Southern Oregon Housing for All met on Monday night one year after they first formed. “There’s an 18 percent poverty rate in Ashland and housing is scarce,” organizer Diane Werich told the group. “We, the citizens of Ashland, are here to express our hopes.”
Among those who heard the message Monday were Ashland City Councilors Stefani Seffinger and Dennis Slattery.
Seffinger later participated in a discussion about the possibility of also building 12 to 15 tiny houses in Ashland for women and children who currently have nowhere to shelter even on the coldest nights.
“I think it’s an important project we can move forward with,” Seffinger said in whispered tones while listening to the discussion. “I’d like to see wrap-around services (counseling and access to health and education programs) and structure to make it successful.”
Tiny house organizer and activist Karen Logan told the group she has two possible sites on gifted land, as well as cash donations. Now the project is in the process of having plans drawn and seeking city approval.
“We need a safe place for women and children,” Logan said.
Additionally, the Affordable Housing Trust Fund established by the city of Ashland in 2008, which has roughly $168,000, could provide a boost.
“We have funding but we don’t know if people and groups are aware of this,” Housing Commissioner Rich Rhode said as he urged people to consider the fund for various projects aimed at helping people before they become homeless. The City Council budgeted marijuana tax receipts collected within the city to go into the fund annually.
The Southern Oregon Tenants Union, formed to lobby for greater renters rights, urged residents to also push the Ashland City Council into recognizing the lack of affordable rentals and seeking outside assistance.
“The City Council has refused to acknowledge the crisis. If they would, funding would be available,” said organizer Jesse Sharpe.
Numerous West Coast cities have declared a housing crisis, including Portland, which did so in 2015. The designation allows for temporary housing such as tent cities and emergency housing. It can also qualify cities for federal aid.
In Monday's session, Southern Oregon Housing for All established goals and looked for ways to support solutions to a housing crisis that has seen homelessness grow by 6.6 percent to nearly 14,000 Oregonians in the past year.
Attendees declared the first priority as shelter for the coming winter for those who have nowhere to stay warm. “It’s already getting cold,” shelter developer and volunteer Ana Witt said as she expressed hope for funding rental space for a 24-hour, seven-day fixed location for shelter.
“All issues are connected," she said. "Housing is connected to your physical and mental well-being.”
Before the session ended, Werich urged those attending who had huddled into groups to take action.
“It’s a way to stay sane," she said. "I can’t do as much about the news coming from Washington, about things happening around the world, but I can look forward to doing something about this. Taking action keeps me sane.”
— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.