Questions abound at forum on operation of new Ashland Street facility, which will need remodeling to meet long-term shelter code requirements
By Morgan Rothborne, Ashland.news
Concerns, questions and goals for the new emergency homeless shelter at 2200 Ashland St. were up for discussion Monday as the Ashland City Council hosted a forum in place of its usual study session.
Since the city purchased the property for use as an emergency weather shelter and emergency homeless shelter, neighbors of the property have repeatedly expressed concerns. The shelter is funded by state grants with tight timelines connected to the governor’s emergency declaration on homelessness issued in January.
The shelter will offer beds and services to 30 individuals selected through an application process. It is currently expected to open by Nov. 1, and will have funding to remain open until Jan. 10.
Ashland Mayor Tonya Graham read aloud a list of goals for the shelter, including a decrease in garbage in Clay Street Park and the surrounding neighborhood, dignity for shelter residents, pathways to long-term housing, and safety for all involved.
Ashland resident Tina Sanford said she and her family own buildings in the neighborhood, “from the DMV up to the train tracks,” about 1,000 feet east of the shelter. Incidents at these properties are frequent, she said, adding that, while Ashland police reliably arrive, they often don’t have the power to intervene.
“We’ve provided a lot of space for small businesses in this town who I’m very protective of,” Sanford said. “We need help. You guys don’t have badges, we don’t have badges, the people who do have badges need help. … These businesses that are suffering — they’re going to be homeless.”
Debbie Nieswander said she found it dehumanizing to lump homeless people and crime together.
“These are human beings we’re talking about,” she said. “I know a lot of’em. They’re not bad people. They make bad decisions, sometimes. I hope the community keeps that in mind.”
There was no immediate answer to a number of questions raised by city councilors.
Councilor Eric Hansen asked what happens to anyone who hasn’t been housed after the emergency order expires on Jan. 10.
“That’s another one of those questions that has no perfect answer,” said City Manager Joe Lessard. “The truth is that it takes longer than 71 days to help people pass through all the barriers they may have to prevent housing, this is the best we can do.”
Those days provide an opportunity for the 30 individuals accepted into the shelter to make the most of the resources provided to them, he said. There is a potential of extending the funding for a few weeks, but the building’s previous life as office space means it does not meet fire code standards for housing, he added. After the Governor’s emergency order expires, the building would require remodeling to continue operating as a long-term shelter.
Councilor Dylan Bloom asked about behavioral standards and enforcement, mentioning concerns from neighbors of the property that anyone asked to leave for inappropriate behavior will be sent out into the neighborhood.
“I’m not going to sugar coat it and say there’s an easy to answer that, there’s not,” said Tighe O’Meara, Ashland chief of police.
Police officers will offer resources, even giving that individual a ride to Medford or helping them to the city’s designated sleeping area, he said. But if the individual rejects offers of help and asks to be left alone, officers can’t do much.
Opportunities for Housing, Resources & Assistance (OHRA, formerly Options for Helping Residents of Ashland) is currently in talks with the city to operate the shelter as a contractor. Cass Sinclair, executive director of OHRA, said shelter staff will do their best not to expel people from the shelter out into the neighborhood.
“‘Low-barrier’ shelter means we serve people living with substance use disorder. … They can’t use on the property, they do sign an agreement that they won’t use on the property. … We do work very hard to come alongside the people we serve, so that we’re not so punitive that then we’re trespassing somebody or evicting them and then you lose the opportunity to work with them,” she said.
Shelter staff will work to find alternative services for anyone who is asked to leave, she said. The new shelter will also have two navigators —trained case workers — and trained staff will manage the site 24/7, she said.
President of OHRA Dennis Slattery repeatedly underlined the problem of homelessness as a growing one.
“There is a greater need, a rising tide, a tsunami of homelessness coming that needs to be dealt with proactively,” he said.
Slattery emphasized that the current shelter plans are a stopgap measure. The city will have to do more, he said, the state will need to do more and organizations like OHRA will continue to evolve to meet the problem as it grows.
As the meeting came to a close, Ashland city councilors unanimously directed city staff to examine the city’s laws and ordinances to see where police could be given additional tools for enforcement, to look into opportunities for outreach or development planning for the south side of Ashland and to determine how best to screen from view portable toilets and showers at the location.
Email Ashland.news reporter Morgan Rothborne at email@example.com.