Dale Townsend, 54, shivered in his coat outside a tent at Lincoln Elementary School in Ashland on Saturday night.
“We talk about the 99 percent and the 1 percent," he said. "The homeless are the zero percent. They don’t have even a percentage of wealth. They don’t have enough for food, shelter or basic necessities. That’s why I’m out here.”
Townsend and 29 others camped on the school’s athletic field to bring attention to those who sleep outside because they are homeless. The “Sleep Out” is an annual fundraising and awareness event sponsored by Options for Homeless Residents of Ashland (OHRA). Last year it raised $22,500. This year, the fourth time it's been held, they raised $30,000.
“There are more than 200 people who sleep out without a choice in Ashland. Twenty-four percent of our budget goes to helping people get a place,” said Leigh Madsen, executive director of OHRA. “I don’t know how people manage night after night. It’s unbelievable that can happen.”
More than half of all homeless people are surviving on a fixed income, either Social Security for seniors or Social Security Disability, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The average benefit ranges between $900 and $1,300 per month. The median rent in Ashland, according to home monitoring site Trulia, is $1,875 per month, an increase of 7 percent over the summer.
"If we had shelter for seniors and the disabled, we could provide proper care to the homeless of Ashland. Where are people supposed to go?” Madsen asked as he gestured with hands wrapped in bandages. He was seriously burned on his face and hands trying to repair a hot water heater on the group’s portable showers for homeless people. The hot water heater exploded on him just prior to the Sleep Out, but he insisted on attending. “We have to bring awareness to the homeless and the amount of their need.”
“It’s different to be outside. We have it cushy with tents and sleeping bags but I still feel the vulnerability of sleeping outside. It’s something that shouldn’t happen in a country as wealthy as ours,” Emergency Shelter Coordinator Heidi Parker said while explaining they choose to hold the Sleep Out in November as it’s beginning to get cold so that people can have a hint of that feeling. Overnight temperatures hovered in the mid to low 30s on Saturday night and early Sunday morning.
“I think we could do more if it were a higher priority,” she said while moving toward the group beginning to hunker down in folding chairs to talk and sing together. “When people are housed, everything gets better. Housing First has shown us that.”
Parker is talking about a social initiative which promotes housing people as a first step, rather than only treating people with services who are still homeless. The Coalition for the Homeless says the average saving in a Housing First model is between $14,000 and $20,000 per year based on research comparing housing to emergency care to the homeless.
“I support OHRA and what they’re doing, trying to get people back on track so they can contribute,” said Kathleen Herring, bundled up in multiple coats and hats. “I’d like to see people with an extra room or even a living room floor on those cold, winter nights offer up space to people. They’re not going to steal. They just want a warm place to sleep, eat and go to the bathroom.” Herring routinely offers space in her Ashland and Talent homes. “We have to get past the fear of each other.”
Training for volunteers to staff winter shelters in Ashland will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 8, at First Presbyterian Church at 1615 Clark Ave. in Ashland.
No frills winter shelters open on Sunday, Nov. 12, and operate through mid-April. According to the OHRA website, shelters will be available Sundays at Pioneer Hall, 73 Winburn Way, across the street from Lithia Park; Mondays at First Presbyterian Church, Calvin Hall, corner of Siskiyou and Walker; Tuesday at Pioneer Hall; Wednesday at Trinity Episcopal Church, 44 N. Second St. between Main Street and Lithia Way; and Thursday at Pioneer Hall. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and are locked at 9:30 p.m.
For information about volunteering at Pioneer Hall, call John Wieczorek at 541-482-8230; to volunteer at the other shelters, email Heidi Parker at email@example.com.