Visitors to new Ashland Street facility see both hopes and dangers
By Morgan Rothborne, Ashland.news
The doors of the 2200 Ashland St. shelter opened to the public for the first time and met with a reception of cautious optimism and lingering worry.
The Wednesday evening open house was attended by neighbors, curious residents, homeless advocates and staff from the shelter’s operator, the nonprofit organization Options for Housing and Rental Assistance (OHRA). Ashland city staff members, councilors and Mayor Tonya Graham were available to answer questions.
The shelter had small rooms with no doors, each filled with Spartan furnishings — green cots and little else. The building has two restrooms, a storage area and a small galley-style kitchen just down the hall from a central room — on this night, empty save for large notepads where attendees were invited to write their thoughts and concerns, including:
“This is way better than what we were doing before.”
“Would like an area designated for women.”
“Are we inviting/attracting more homeless to our area by adding additional shelters in South Ashland? What is adequate?”
A new slatted chain link fence for privacy on the property will be installed as soon as Halloween and sliding gates with locks will come soon after, said Public Works Director Scott Fleury. Wireless internet and cameras will also be installed in the space in the near future. Posters on easels near one entrance listed the terms of what the shelter will offer: 30 individuals who can pass a background check will have a bed and access to navigators from OHRA from Nov. 1 to Jan. 10.
Katie Case came to have a look at the shelter with her husband and two children, an 18-month-old and a 13-year-old. She was proud to say their children are fourth-generation, south-side Ashland residents. Their home is close to the new facility.
“I can see heads moving around inside. I would say we have the best view,” Case said.
The initial shock of the facility’s purchase and plans for a shelter felt like a breach of trust to some. Opening a restaurant in the building would have come with more opportunity for community feedback, she said. Case joined a neighborhood group that has formed between those who live nearby the shelter.
The group has met with Ashland city councilors and the mayor, she said. Representatives of the police and fire department have come out to walk through the neighborhood with members of the group and listen.
“It’s hard, because I know OHRA is amazing, they’re doing great work. …. I want people to be housed and helped, it’s the needles in our neighborhood, people smoking crack in their cars in front of our house. It’s just kind of flooded in. Our neighborhood has taken a turn in the last 18 months, whether that’s because of OHRA or not. You can understand why I’m nervous to bring in more low barrier beds. I hope it will be successful,” Case said.
Geri Eposito — also a member of the group — was concerned about the loan and the interest rate to buy the building when the city has cited lack of funding in keeping positions in the police department and Ashland Fire & Rescue. She was also frustrated that the low-barrier shelter won’t be able to house children and families. Members of the group also worry OHRA won’t be receptive to neighbor’s concerns. She cited current conditions in the neighborhood.
“People are afraid to go walking at night, to go to the Shop’n Kart. There’s a lot of feces around that people have to clean up,” she said.
Pricilla High has been cleaning up the area for the last two years. She couldn’t ignore it when she noticed debris along the bike path in front of her home, she said. After the 93-year-old began filling garbage bags with drug paraphernalia, litter and human feces, a few other neighbors have turned out to help her.
“It’s a nauseating task,” she said.
She hoped the city will “shine a light on South Ashland and rise it up from this long decline,” she said. Despite conditions in the neighborhood, High was willing to hold some optimism.
“You just have to look at the realities. You just have to see the opportunity for Ashland to be a model for other cities trying to deal with this kind of thing, cities everywhere are dealing with this,” she said.
Without affiliation with any organization, Debbie Neiswander has been working throughout the progression of the new shelter to encourage homeless people to speak up for their needs while reminding the city of Ashland that the current situation is born of a humanitarian problem.
“They (homeless people) can appear to be shut down, because they are shut down. …Some of these people underneath it all are pretty amazing,” she said.
Homeless people are not inherently criminals, she said. There are plenty of juvenile delinquents active in Ashland and some of their work may be being blamed on homeless people, she said, adding that not all homeless people are addicted to drugs or suffering with mental health problems. But the circumstances that lead someone to become homeless are often traumatizing. Those experiences and the reality of life on the street often leads to poor coping mechanisms. Homeless people may resort to alcohol and sometimes other substances. Even if they decide they want to get clean, the systems in place are overwhelmed.
“We decriminalized everything, but there’s no care, no treatment. …We’re not treating the cause, it’s become multi-generational. A lot of these people grew up in such filth and disgust and poverty that they don’t know any better,” Neiswander said.
Homeless people in Ashland are leery of the new shelter because its limited beds are only available to those who can get the right kind of score on a vulnerability survey and pass a background check.
Cass Sinclair, executive director of OHRA, stood near the rooms facing Shop’n Kart’s parking lot, fielding questions and accepting some praise from attendees.
“These are my goals, in those 71 days — which isn’t a long time — how long have we moved people along a continuum? One person’s big success might be getting a birth certificate, another person’s might be coming out of this fully housed. … That’s the beauty in watching and working alongside people and building relationships. The navigators will, I know, build relationships with the people they serve,” she said. “That one trusting person is sometimes all a person needs, that’s often the big piece for people experiencing homelessness — they don’t have that one trusting person.”
In response to concerns from neighbors, Sinclair said OHRA staff will be collaborative and responsive.
“This is an asset in our community, we want this to run well,” she said.
OHRA staff always work hard to encourage their shelter guests to be good neighbors, but they can only be responsible for the grounds of 2200 Ashland St. and they don’t have badges, she said.
When asked about enforcement in the area, Police Chief Tighe O’Meara was ready with a stack of print-outs detailing the department’s plans — to establish an “office presence” near Exit 14, assign an officer to patrol the Ashland Street business corridor full-time, expand its cadet program and add patrolling city parks to their responsibilities, with special attention to Clay Street Park. The list ended with an invitation from O’Meara to contact the department with any new ideas.
“There will be problems. And the city will be responsive to those problems and all of us at the city and the police department will work with the community to try to find a solution,” O’Meara said.
Email Ashland.news reporter Morgan Rothborne at firstname.lastname@example.org.