While organizers called last winter’s shelter program a success, keeping the homeless warm 112 nights, some Ashland City Council members say the shelter is becoming problematic with complaints piling up.
The winter shelter, established independently in 2007 by two Ashland residents, last season offered shelter five nights per week last winter at three locations, due to the cooperation of several religious and nonprofit groups and the city of Ashland.
The shelter, which runs Sunday through Thursday nights, serves an average of 35 to 52 people each night, volunteer coordinator Heidi Parker said at the City Council meeting Nov. 21.
More than 120 community members took turns hosting each shelter night, with an average of two hosts spending each night. More than 100 other volunteer helped with serving food, doing laundry and cleaning up.
The volunteer-run program has now grown into a safe place for homeless population in Ashland to stay warm and, for some, an opportunity for them to get back on their feet, organizers said. Organizer Vanessa Houk said she knows some people started to able to get jobs and apply to go to school again after being sheltered.
“I saw how having a place where they can check in with other people helped their mental states,” according to Houk’s report to the council. “Our winter shelter program provides safety, structure, socialization and improved decision making skills and that's carried back out on the streets with positive results.”
But for the city, some councilors said the program is becoming troublesome. Staff depicted the shelter at Pioneer Hall a “deteriorating situation.”
A list of issues submitted to city staff and the Parks Department details complaints received in early 2017, including issues with smoking, alcohol use, loitering, littering, illegal camping, making other renters of the building feel “unsafe,” damaging the building’s stone wall, vandalizing and harassing of city staff.
According to a report from the Ashland Police Department, the police responded to Pioneer Hall 40 times from November 2016 to April 2017 in response to calls about medical assistance, disorderly conduct, trespassing, outstanding warrants and assault, among other things.
“What are the plans to improve the more serious issues?” Councilor Dennis Slattery asked at the meeting.
Councilor Greg Lemhouse echoed Slattery’s concerns, adding that the shelter needs to be more transparent with the city about the issues happening on city property.
“There are at least 10 entries with significant concerns … but we are not told what the solution is to deal with that,” Lemhouse said. “There’s not a lot being done.”
“If we continue to have damage to our public property and we are having potential drug uses in the area and some other actions, it’s going to be hard to continue on in a public building,” he added.
Sharon Harris, a shelter organizer, said the police and ambulance are called when it’s a health emergency, giving an example of a case of diabetic and a case of an infection. A sharps box of needles found in the shelter was directly related to the diabetic case, she said.
“We don’t encourage drug uses in the shelter,” Parker added. “But we know this population uses drugs …. Our interest is safety, keeping the workers and the shelter safe. We keep the box in the shelter trailer, and someone just forgot to take it back.”
Parker emphasized that the shelter has a zero tolerance policy with violent actions or behaviors — an individual will be removed that night or banned from the shelter depending on the severity.
Parker said issues such as smoking and inappropriate behaviors have been hard to monitor, but the shelter is taking steps such as "uninviting" guests and bringing in former mental health counselors to talk with them.
“We’re all disturbed by some of the behavior that we see,” Parker said. “But with that said, it’s a way bigger problem than our shelter — we are doing what we can to coordinate as many community members who want to help as possible.”
Slattery said he supports the shelters and the goal to open seven nights a week, but added that things have to get better for the downtown area first.
“Somehow that area needs to be improved,” Slattery said. “There’s a tilting point — a time when the community can give that up — and things turn the wrong direction. We don’t want to see that happen.”
Harris proposed an open conversation with the council, hoping to prolong the partnership for the shelter.
“We are in a partnership with the city …. We are not going to solve the issues tonight, but maybe a conversation is in order,” she said. “We want to hear from you and get some help and support from the city about what you think we can do, so we can make sure it’s running as expected.”
Councilor Rich Rosenthal said he trusted the organizers to address the issues, but reminded the council of the problem with the infrastructure of the building itself.
“The facility itself is flawed. We know that there’s an issue with the roof. We know that it’s not ideal for shelter,” he said. “I don’t know how much longer it will be viable …. We need to start thinking about alternative locations.”
City Administrator John Karns said staff will provide the council an update every two months about the shelter and include discussion of a potential additional shelter night for next year on the agenda for the next scheduled study session on the topic.
— Reach Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Tran Nguyen at 541-776-4485 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on twitter @nguyenntrann.