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As Severe Winter Storm Hits, Few Shelters in Southern Oregon Are Prepared

April Ehrlich | JPR News
A woman clutches a stuffed bear at a temporary warming shelter at the Ashland Public Library Tuesday night.

Sudden winds and icy snow challenged a lot of people in Southern Oregon on Tuesday, particularly people who didn't have a place to stay warm.

The Ashland Public Library was the only emergency warming shelter in Jackson and Josephine counties last night. People began filing into the empty meeting room with backpacks, blankets, and sleeping bags; anything that could cushion them against the hard floor.

One woman slept under a folding table, squeezing a stuffed bear against her chest and shielding her eyes against the fluorescent lights.

The shelter was organized by an all-volunteer group called Southern Oregon Jobs With Justice, and the library provided the space.

“If they hadn't stepped up there would be no shelter tonight,” says Jason Houk, who leads the group.

A person sleeps on the floor at an emergency warming shelter at the Ashland Public Library on Tuesday night.
Credit April Ehrlich | JPR News
A person sleeps on the floor at an emergency warming shelter at the Ashland Public Library on Tuesday night.

The volunteer group has been organizing warming centers in Ashland every year for the last four years. Warming centers are temporary shelters that open when temperatures drop below freezing.

Houk says this storm’s timing couldn’t be worse. Just two days before Thanksgiving, most churches are busy organizing meals and bazaars so they don’t have the space or the time to help.

“One biggest challenges is lack of space,” Houk says.

Claudine Taillac with Jackson County Library Services says they stepped in once they heard there was a need. She says libraries are one of the few warm places where people can go without being expected to buy something.

“The library is the only place that exists that serves the entire community, the whole county, with no expectation of anything in return,” Taillac says. “And so [libraries are] crucial to people who are traveling or living unhoused.”

The overnight shelter was organized quickly; word didn’t get out about the library shelter until the middle of the day. At that point, local nonprofits started sending people who needed shelter to the library, which wasn’t yet prepared for them ... or their dogs.

They included Terresia Avalos and her service dog, Mocha.

“I was told by a shelter that I could stay here and be warm until the pickup time,” Avalos says. 

During her conversation with JPR, a librarian asked why she had a service dog and asked her to name her disability because “if it’s mental, it doesn’t count.” Avalos says the librarian’s comments hurt.

“Mental health is real,” Avalos says. “Nobody chooses to go through things. Nobody chooses to go through bad things and nobody chooses to be homeless.”

Avalos suffers from several traumas, including being molested and raped as a child. She has been bouncing between different homes and jobs; she recently lost a job after spraining her foot, which is still bandaged.

Avalos says Mocha helps her feel safe, especially at night when she’s sleeping in unfamiliar places.

“He keeps me sane,” she says. “He’s my baby. Just to go through all of that and.... People are supposed to protect you, and they don’t.”

Credit April Ehrlich | JPR News
Terresia Avalos and her service dog, Mocha, at the Ashland Public Library on Tuesday.

Library managers have since made it clear that it’s not their policy to ask people about their disabilities. Still, the experience put Avalos on edge about whether she and Mocha were welcome.

“Do you think it would help if I told them that I graduated from Southern Oregon University?” she says.

Ashland isn’t the only city struggling to provide warming shelters for people who need them. Medford and Grants Pass don’t have any warming center (See Editor's Note below) . All three cities do have more permanent shelters, but they’re what some homeless advocates call “high barrier shelters,” in that people must pass background checks. They also can’t use any substances, like alcohol or drugs. Some shelters require that they attend religious services.

Houk says that’s why Ashland’s library shelter is necessary to fill the gaps, even if it can’t provide beds.

“The need for shelter is incredible,” Houk says. “Even this shelter isn't going to meet the need.”

Houk is still looking for volunteers. He hopes that the upcoming holidays will inspire people to help others who are enduring the cold. For more information, contact Southern Oregon Jobs With Justice.

The Ashland warming center will move to the Bellview Grange on Tolman Creek Road on Wednesday and Thursday nights, then back to the Ashland library Friday night.

EDITOR'S NOTE: On Wednesday afternoon, Medford City Manager Brian Sjothun issued a severe weather event declaration. The declaration allows the use of approved severe event shelter facilities to provide overnight lodging when the temperature is expected to be below 25 degrees Fahrenheit.

Available Severe Event Shelter:
First Presbyterian Church
85 S Holly Street, Medford
Hours: 7 p.m. - 8 a.m. next day

April Ehrlich is an editor and reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Prior to joining OPB, she was a news host and regional reporter at Jefferson Public Radio.