Where do you go when you have no home? This is a question an Ashland native, I’ll call him “John,” faces every night. He was sitting to my right at the Voices of Faith for Solutions for Homelessness gathering August 15 at the First United Methodist Church. He was clean-shaven and dressed better than I was. I never in a million years would have guessed he was homeless.
That’s a good part of the problem, I realized, as the woman on John’s right, I’ll call her “Anna,” spoke up. “We don’t want your pity,” she said. “We just want a place to live.” She makes good money, she said, working as a certified nursing assistant but is crippled with medical bills to the point where she can’t afford rent.
My bias, I saw, was that I was looking at the unwashed folks gathering at the Black Swan Theater and pegging them as homeless. “They give us, the Ashland residents, a bad name,” John said. “They travel the I-5 corridor, use drugs. Heroin is a big problem now.”
I wanted to ask John where he spends the night, where he showers, how he washes his clothes. But the meeting had a tight agenda, and we had to finish out introductions and move on to the next topic. During the supper break the woman on the other side of Anna, a woman who works in the care field, made some suggestions as to how Anna could find housing. I know John, who is on disability and has been homeless for five years, is eligible for the Ashley Senior Center Apartments on Siskiyou, but he would have to go on a waiting list to get in. I didn’t suggest that solution to John because I didn’t want to offend him.
After introductions and a prayer, Phil Johncock of the One Site Shelter Committee gave a “Where Are We Now?” presentation. When 57 Ashland Winter Shelter guests were interviewed in December 2017 and January 2018, 75% said they became homeless in Oregon (98% of them local), and none said they moved to Ashland because of the services. Johncock said of the homeless:
- 54% are disabled.
- The average length of time being homeless is 46.6 months.
- The average age is 44.2. The youngest is 23. The oldest is 72.
- 28% are considered “chronic homeless” (at least 4 years).
- 25% are female.
- 17.5% are veterans.
Johncock said the homeless crisis is not a single issue but involves giving immediate shelter, providing job training and mental health services, and finding permanent housing. The biggest challenge in the freezing cold of winter nights, the homeless say, is getting and staying warm. Emergency shelters are open only when the temperature drops to 20 degrees.
The Ashland Winter Shelter Program, which will open November 10, is sponsored by the First Presbyterian Church, South Mountain Friends Meeting, Temple Emek Shalom, Trinity Episcopal Church, United Congregational Church of Christ, Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Our Lady of the Mountain Catholic Church, Ashland First United Methodist Church, Quiet Mountain Insight Mediation Sangha, and Havurah Shir Hadash Synagogue. Johncock said these congregations provide shelter Sunday-Friday, but another site is needed for Saturdays.
Keynote speaker for the event was the Rev. Dan Bryant, pastor of the First Christian Church in Eugene. In October of 2012 his congregation sponsored the incorporation of Opportunity Village Eugene as a nonprofit, and in December the Eugene City Council instructed city staff to establish a “micro-housing project for the homeless” on an acre of city land. In August of 2013 Opportunity Village’s first dozen residents moved in.
Opportunity Village is a community of tiny houses (60-80 square feet) run by its residents, who must serve 10 hours a week in community activities such as staffing the front desk (there is only one entrance to the village) and cleaning communal areas. All residents are required to attend the weekly Village Meeting. New residents are on probation for four weeks. No alcohol, drugs, or weapons are allowed, and theft is a reason for expulsion.
“Opportunity Village was the stepping stone of my transition into society. After only a few months of living there my girlfriend and I are living a life where we are able to sustain a home on our own after being homeless for two years,” said one former resident. The transition can be from Opportunity Village to Emerald Village.
In Emerald Village, “Each of the 22 homes are designed to meet the building code’s definition of a ‘permanent dwelling’—including sleeping and living areas, a kitchenette, and bathroom—all in 160-288 square feet,” according to the community’s Web site. Members are part of a housing cooperative and gain equity in their homes. Rent is $250-$350 a month and covers utilities and maintenance.
Cottage Villages in Cottage Grove, which United Way of Lane County says is 50% peopled by those in poverty or the asset-limited, income-constrained employed, is being developed by Square One Villages.
Square One Villages was a result of the Occupy Movement in 2011.
Following Rev Bryant’s presentation, event participants broke into groups studying the challenges of mental health and addiction, homeless families and youth, economic factors and employment skills, barriers faced by the homeless, the role of shelters in crisis response, and shelter and tiny houses.
I was humbled by this event.
By Addie Greene, Ashland