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Poverty and Homelessness

Ashland Winter Shelter Closed Early Due To Coronavirus Concerns

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Jackson County Continuum of Care

A winter shelter in Ashland closed early because of the coronavirus pandemic. Like other homeless shelters across the country, organizers were concerned that having people sleeping in close quarters wasn’t safe. JPR reporter April Ehrlich has been speaking to unsheltered people and the nonprofits that help them. She discusses what she found with JPR’s Liam Moriarty.
 

LIAM MORIARTY: Now we're all living with Governor Kate Brown stay-at-home order in place. So where are people who don't have a home sleeping right now?

APRIL EHRLICH: Governor Brown did add additional guidelines to her executive order, and she made a point of saying, "Oregon's stay-at-home directives do not apply to shelters and social services." So where people are sleeping right now kind of depends on who we're talking about. Are they an individual a family male female youth? There are different shelters that serve different populations. But even though many of them are still open, many are at capacity, which means they can't accept more people. Here in Jackson County, a lot of people who can't find shelter space are sleeping along the Bear Creek Greenway. Police and sheriff's departments normally do "clean sweeps" of the Green Way — that's when they clear out people's tents and belongings — but officials with those departments have told me that they are not doing those right now, both because they recognize that unsheltered people have nowhere else to go, but also to protect their police officers from getting the coronavirus

MORIARTY: So now we've had at least one shelter though that closed in Ashland — the winter shelter run by Options for Helping Residents of Ashland. Was that shelter closed because of the coronavirus?

EHRLICH: Yeah, OHRA closed its winter shelter about two weeks early. They usually have about 45 people on bunk beds throughout the winter. They would have been open until the end of March, but they said they closed because they couldn't comply with social distancing guidelines. They also took some advice from the Jackson County Public Health medical director, Jim Shames, who recommended that they close. Here's what he told me:

"I think putting 40 people in bunk beds one right next to one another in an enclosed space overnight is a really unsafe situation during a coronavirus pandemic." - Jim Shames, Jackson County Public Health Medical Director

MORIARTY: It's still been pretty cold at night. A couple of weeks ago, it was below freezing overnight. It's still right around freezing or so at night. So what happens to people who were sleeping in the shelter that got closed?

EHRLICH: OHRA did get a grant from the Ashland City Council to put 11 people who they considered to be very vulnerable into a bed-and-breakfast for about a week, but that still left more than 30 people having to camp outside. Many of them went to the Greenway. OHRA provided them with camping gear, like sleeping bags and tents. I did speak to one gentleman who is currently camping out on the Greenway right now. His name's Andrew Hecker, and I met him at a meal drop-off site outside Ashland last week.

"Well, it's my first time camping on the streets. I usually have some place to go. It's kind of interesting, at the same time very mixed emotions. It gets cold at night, and me surviving out here is so-so." - Andrew Hecker of Ashland

MORIARTY: How are local governments like Ashland City Council, for example, responding to the needs of homeless people during the pandemic?

EHRLICH: The Ashland City Council did provide that grant to temporarily house about 11 people at a bed and breakfast, but other than that, as far as I know, there aren't efforts in Jackson or Josephine County to open an additional shelter for people who need a place to quarantine. The Ashland City Council has set up porta-potties and hand-washing stations throughout town. They turned on electrical outlets at city parks, so people can charge their phones. They've also started allowing car camping at three parking lots, which are being organized and run by OHRA. I spoke to Ashland City Councilor Julie Akins. She's a vocal homeless advocate and she says [the council's] efforts aren't enough.

"A person wanting a place to shelter during a pandemic, a person wanting a place where they can wash with soap and water, and shower and launder their clothes, is not asking too much. They're asking to follow a lawful order and we should help them do it." - Julie Akins, Ashland City Councilor

EHRLICH: [Akins] wants to see people sheltered in motels, which are currently sitting empty right now because the tourism industry is at a basic stand still. She says many hotels aren't willing to provide shelter for people who are homeless, even when there's funding available.

MORIARTY: So, April, where do we go from here? What happens now?

EHRLICH: Akins is still pushing for this idea of putting unsheltered people into motels, or at least a public building. She told me that there's not a lot of interest among other counsilors. Staff with Jackson County Public Health told me that they've talked about the possibility of reopening the winter shelter that closed, but that conversation didn't get anywhere. So for now, people are still camping out wherever they can or they're sleeping in their cars.