$1M state grant could pay for finding a place, but no ongoing source for operating costs has been identified
By Stephen Floyd, Ashland.news
The Ashland City Council has directed staff to identify a location for a new emergency shelter to house people in need during severe weather or similar disasters.
The city is working with a $1 million state grant to purchase or lease property that could be used during extreme heat, cold or smoke conditions, as well as during sudden emergencies such as wildfires.
City Manager Joe Lessard said the city has already identified around 15 properties that could be suitable, and at its meeting Tuesday, Jan. 17, the council directed staff to examine options in-depth and return with a recommendation.
Lessard said a property would ideally be selected within 30 to 60 days with the intent to open a new shelter by next winter, and his office is exploring multiple possibilities from leasing an existing building to purchasing a plot and building to suit.
“We are not trying to close the door on any option,” he told the council. “We are trying to leave all the doors open right now.”
More than a year in the making
The Ashland Housing and Human Services Commission has been examining options for a severe weather shelter since being directed by the council Aug. 7, 2021, to explore local needs and seek input from stakeholders and collaborators. The commission returned with recommended policy changes June 6, 2022, including a definition of the severe weather events that will activate the shelter, the roles and responsibilities of a shelter coordinator, a plan to work with third parties, and the city’s role in providing support and resources.
The City Council adopted these policy revisions Dec. 6, 2022, which included a threshold of 32 degrees or below for the cold weather shelter, 95 degrees or above for extreme heat, and an air quality index of 150 or above for smoky conditions. The council also set aside $100,000 in the general fund to contract for site operations with a local nonprofit, with the city in talks with Options for Helping Residents of Ashland (OHRA), who said they would take the matter to their board for consideration.
OHRA currently operates a local resource center, a transitional housing shelter, and portable shower trailers. They acquired a defunct Super 8 Motel in 2021 to offer transitional housing and walk-in services, and have collected $1.1 million toward a $2.5 million fundraising goal to fully renovate and staff the facility.
Current facilities faltering
With new policies in place, the city began taking steps toward identifying a location for a new shelter, as current facilities struggle to meet the needs of both volunteers and shelter guests. They intend to use a $1 million state grant accepted last June out of funds set aside by legislators to combat housing insecurity and homelessness.
Housing Program Manager Linda Reid said Pioneer Hall, where the city has historically operated such shelters, is aging and in need of repair, and is not suitable for necessary upgrades. She said The Grove, which the city uses as a backup shelter, hosts regular programs and houses the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department offices, so using the building for emergencies can be difficult to coordinate.
Reid said local churches have been able to assist with space in the past, such as Calvary Baptist Church, First Presbyterian Church of Ashland and Ashland First United Methodist Church. While these resources remain available, Reid said outreach from the commission showed stakeholders need more support from the city.
“The churches have always been very gracious,” said Reid, “and I’m sure they would actually continue to be very gracious, but essentially the outcome of the stakeholder feedback was the city needs to do more. The churches are overburdened at this time, and it’s just harder for them to provide the level of volunteerism — including the buildings — for these purposes.”
Lessard said staff have looked at properties the city currently owns, properties that are for sale, and properties that would be suitable for a shelter but are not on the market. He said one goal is to identify a property that would “mature over time” and be suitable for services beyond severe weather sheltering, such as the storage and distribution of emergency supplies and shelter for residents during a disaster.
“What we’re really talking about is a health and public safety issue in terms of having shelter in any emergency,” he said.
Seeking a long-term solution
Councilors said, while they want to move forward with identifying a property, they also want to ensure the corresponding shelter program will be ready to hit the ground running when the facility is ready to open. Councilor Tonya Graham pointed out the $100,000 set aside for coordinator services came from capital reserves and no long-term funding strategy has been identified.
“I don’t ever want to have to shut a facility down that we helped start, and so I am concerned about getting the cart before the horse in terms of not having a plan yet that we know we can do, and then deciding what site fits within that plan,” she said. “That piece of it needs to be coming alongside, or even ahead of the site selection.”
A previous shelter for those in crisis in Ashland was forced to close last June after a $300,000 pandemic relief grant supporting the program ran out. The city received the funds from the state in 2020, and in November of 2021 Rogue Retreat opened a 49-unit temporary housing shelter for those impacted by COVID-19 and the Almeda fire.
On June 3, 2022, Rogue Retreat announced the shelter would close due to a lack of funding and they would seek long-term funds to bring a similar facility back to Ashland. According to Rogue Retreat’s website, a shelter is not currently in development for the city.
Councilor Paula Hyatt agreed that the focus should be on the program and not the building, and said the council should be open to taking its time to find the right facility even if that means going beyond the 30 to 60 days Lessard said would be ideal to open by next winter.
“Don’t lose sight of that broader strategy because we’re so focused on a specific building and a specific time frame,” she said. “It’s got to be right to meet that coordinated solution, and it’s got to be right to work long term.”
Councilor Eric Hansen said housing the vulnerable during extreme conditions was “absolutely a humanitarian issue.” He said, in envisioning a shelter long-term, it could become a place for community activities and exercise that may otherwise be harmful during dangerous weather.
“This is a component to a larger need in our community, adapting to climate change and keeping our families healthy during extreme heat and smoke events,” he said.
Councilor Gina DuQuenne said she would like to see a shelter that takes into account the racial and ethnic disparities in Ashland’s neighborhoods, and meets their needs without centralizing services away from these populations.
“As staff looks for property, keep in mind to try to have integrated living and not have a red line situation where everything is located in one area of Ashland,” said DuQuenne.
Councilors unanimously supported a motion directing staff to move forward with identifying a shelter recommendation that conformed with the revised shelter policies adopted last month, and develop a long-term plan for the maintenance and operation of the shelter.