Ashland resident Dot Fisher-Smith, a long time local activist, said sometimes she'd rather spend the night among those she hosts at the winter shelter than sleep in her own home.

“I'd almost rather be there,” Fisher-Smith said. “They need me there more than I need to be in my household.”

Fisher-Smith, almost 90, has dedicated her time at the Ashland winter shelter since years ago when there was only one shelter night per week.

“It’s so important to have a place to sleep, to shelter,” Fisher-Smith said. ”How can you get up to go to work if you don’t even have a place to wash your face?”

The winter shelter, started independently by two Ashland residents, expanded quickly with the community support from various religious and nonprofit groups. From one night a week, the volunteer-based winter shelter opened 112 nights at three locations last year — five days a week — keeping the homeless warm and safe during the winter months.

This year, a partnership with Southern Oregon Jobs with Justice opens up a new opportunity, allowing a sixth night on every Friday at the Pioneer Hall.

Jason and Vanessa Houk organize Friday night dinners and Sunday's shelter night at Pioneer Hall. Their dinner, prepared and donated by community partners in town, draws a crowd of around 60 people every week.

“The city has been a great partner for us in finding the space for the shelter,” Jason said. “We want to go above and beyond as we recognize the importance of shelter for our community."

The shelter opened its first Friday last week after the couple's weekly dinner, Jason said. Around 38 people stayed over the night — a number he expects to rise.

“On cold nights, we could reach capacity at 44 people,” he said.

The program has attracted more than 100 volunteers this year, volunteer coordinator Heidi Parker said in a previous interview. But the program will need more manpower to keep expanding.

The goal, Jason said, is to find enough resources to cover all nights of the week and, in the long run, to establish a 24/7 shelter or a day center for those who are unsheltered.

“Most folks are struggling out there and don’t have place to go,” he said. “Some of the problems brought up usually happened before and after a shelter night, or on nights with no shelter night.”

A list compiled by city staff of issues associated with the shelter includes “inappropriate behavior” such as loitering, smoking, alcohol use, making other renters of the building feel “unsafe,” vandalizing and harassing of city staff. The report was presented to the city at the Nov. 21 meeting, where councilors called for stricter enforcement from organizers.

“We are a low bar shelter — we don’t ask much from our guest besides being tolerable,” Jason said. “But we are working closely with the city — we let our guests know the rules and enforce them as much as we can.”

Jason believes the additional night of shelter will help with the problems — as well as the mental state for the unsheltered.

When the couple serve dinners on Friday nights — after five days of shelter — they could see a more “joyful and relaxed” attitude from the community. But as people came back to Pioneer Hall on Sunday night, most of them look exhausted, Jason said.

“Many of them just came in and collapsed on the floor,” Jason said. “Their demeanor decreases and suffers from sleeping on the streets for two days.”

Fisher-Smith said that, besides helping out at the winter shelter, she takes time to get to know the "unhoused," as she prefers to call them.

“I would hang out with them at the Plaza when I can,” Fisher-Smith said. “Living on the streets, it wears you out in a lot of ways.”

“Shelter, and housing, is the first step,” she added. “To let people fall through the cracks because of our failing social services, we should be all ashamed.”

Pioneer Hall remains a candidate for renovation by the city after an engineering team found some structural weakness in the rooftop of the building. The building might  not make it through an ice storm or heavy snow, a staff report says. The Public Works Department is commissioning a $40,000 study on the overall structural soundness of the building.

“Personally I’m not too worried from talking to the engineers,” Jason said. “We have an alternative plan where we could use the Community Center next door. But we don’t have a plan C.”

Volunteers such as the Houks and Fisher-Smith take on various tasks at the shelter. Jason said the program always needs more volunteers to clean up in the morning after a shelter night.

“If we have enough volunteers, then we could seriously look into covering Saturday nights too,” he said. Prospective volunteers can contact Vanessa Houk by calling 541-930-2170 or emailing

— Reach reporter Tran Nguyen at 541-776-4485 or Follow her on twitter @nguyenntrann.