OHRA mission: Moving people from crisis to stability

Representatives of Ashland Community Hospital Foundation and Options for Helping Residents of Ashland gather outside the OHRA Center on Ashland Street to celebrate a grant that will fund creation of a clinic at the center which will be operated by La Clinica.
November 27, 2022

Former Super 8 Motel offers shelter and services; ‘Building trust is our starting point’

By Barbara Cervone

There are 1,001 scenarios for how someone’s life can unravel — perhaps over months or seemingly overnight — and discard them onto the streets. Homelessness is rarely a choice. Most often, it is a wrenching space of vulnerability.

The “guests” and visitors who seek out Ashland’s recently-christened emergency shelter and resource center, rising from the former Super 8 Motel on Ashland Street near Exit 14, are as different from each other as you from me.

Just shy of his 19th birthday, Jason (the names here are aliases) has aged out of foster care. Anxiety, depression and drug use stalk his days, while a furtive search for a place to sleep occupies his nights.  

Veronica, 68, has lived with her daughter and her family the past five years, but when missed rent payments led to eviction, Veronica, who is wheelchair-bound, found impromptu shelter wherever she could.

Garrett, a single dad and disabled veteran, struggles to raise his two children alone, cycling through temporary housing and unreliable employment. What worries him most, he says, is not being able to provide the stability his children need and deserve.

In the course of one week this fall, Jason, Veronica, and Garrett were among the 128 people who turned up at Options for Helping Residents of Ashland (now The OHRA Center), both hopeful and wary about seeking assistance.

“Building trust is our starting point,” OHRA Director Cass Sinclair, a former community outreach coordinator for Jackson County Public Health, emphasizes.

Indeed, trust and dignity grace this re-envisioned space, which once housed passing travelers along Interstate 5.

A new approach

Started in 2012 by volunteers concerned about homelessness in Ashland, OHRA began with a laundry-shower trailer, then a small resource center with a staff of one, and finally the management of the Ashland Winter Shelter, which for many years rotated from one church to another over the course of the winter.

In 2021, all of this changed when the Oregon Community Foundation awarded OHRA the first Project Turnkey capital grant of $4.2 million in state funds, promising to address the depth and breadth of homelessness in the community. With these funds, OHRA purchased an underutilized Ashland motel and transformed it into The OHRA Center: a year-round low-barrier shelter with 52 rooms for guests; a resource center with a professional staff of six to assist anyone seeking help with rent, jobs, utilities, benefits and more; and a permanent home for the shower trailer.

“We were blown out of the water in the best way,” Sinclair says, “going from 5 mph to 50 in a few short months, from a staff of five to 36, from managing a budget of $225,000 to $2.6 million.”

What sets OHRA apart from the 19 new shelters started statewide with Turnkey funds is the open door policy of its resource center. The center serves not only shelter guests. Others helped include people who are not housed at the shelter but simply show up and folks who have housing but are at risk of losing it.

Staffed by six case workers aptly named “navigators,” the center’s services are many: from preventing eviction, getting a job, accessing health care to securing an ID, picking up mail, SNAP food benefits, and much more. The starting place is not what staff believe is in the best interest of the client, but the needs the client identifies.

“We don’t get out in front of them, we work alongside of them,” Sinclair stresses.

The importance of “navigators” exploded in the first year of COVID-19 when many public facilities and support systems across the valley closed down, removing lifelines those experiencing homelessness relied upon. This extended from public bathrooms and transportation to accessing official records.

“We’d have 80 or 90 people a day showing up in our small office next to Safeway, desperate for help,” says Sinclair.

OHRA’s catchment area has also grown. It is now an access point for the Jackson County Continuum of Care (ACCESS), which means that OHRA may shelter people in crisis from elsewhere in the county, based on their score on a common intake tool. OHRA can also refer its guests to service providers countywide through relationships and referrals.

This teamwork is essential. The experience of homelessness crosses zip codes.

The Options for Helping Residents of Ashland Resource Center at 2350 Ashland St. OHRA photo
A half century in the making

We tend to think of homelessness as a 21st century phenomenon, but the roots of “modern” homelessness in America stretch back half a century.

In the 1970s, when government policy closed inpatient mental health facilities nationwide, patients with severe and persistent mental illness were left without care or housing, often ending up on the streets.

In the 1980s, when the federal government cut its annual housing budget, the largest source of affordable housing, by three-quarters — from $80 billion to $20 billion a year — new construction halted and the public housing infrastructure crumbled. Homelessness skyrocketed.

In the 1990s, when homelessness spilled to urban sidewalks and parks, making the invisible visible, a patchwork of emergency shelters, clinics and street outreach programs emerged, as unprepared to meet the crisis then as they are now.

The Oregon equation

Oregon has the second highest percentage of unhoused in the nation, with 14,655 people experiencing homelessness on any given day (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2021.) It also has the highest rate of unsheltered families with children, numbering 23,765 public school students in 2018-2019 (U.S. Department of Education).

The challenges of an inadequate housing supply and rising rents that leave tens of thousands of children and families at risk of becoming homeless (the cost of living in Oregon is the fifth highest in the country) is a national story. So, too, is the persistence of a smaller population of chronically homeless people in need of intensive social services.

Still, statistics in Oregon are staggering. Oregon ranks worst in the nation for prevalence of mental illness, according to a new study by Mental Health America, and at the bottom for mental health spending. It ranks third in the nation for mental illness among youth and has consistently claimed the top spot for addiction rates (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2021.) In 2020, the homeless represented 3% of the state population while representing 52% of arrests (World Population Review), an expensive solution when the arrest leads to jail.

The new OHRA facility on Ashland Street. Drew Fleming photo for Ashland.news
Local help

Against this backdrop, The OHRA Center’s accomplishments in just one year stack up remarkably. It has secured new housing for 147 families, protected housing for another 242 individuals, provided 19,045 instances of support services, sheltered 267, and showered 1,812. Through much of this period, the Center was only just gearing up (as it continues to do).

“Over and over again, I’ve seen OHRA step up with creative solutions for challenges we’ve never faced before,” State Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, said at the June 2022 kick-off to the organization’s capital campaign, aimed at raising $2.5 million in additional funding, including critical funds for capacity building and sustainability not included in the Project Turnkey grant. “I have seen first-hand how OHRA helps people move from crisis to stability.”

Cass Sinclair will tell you how she looks at the crisis of homelessness from three vantage points.

There’s the view from 30,000 feet, where national advocates and experts underscore that conquering homelessness is a deep and long-term campaign, with policies and practices that stretch from increasing affordable housing, integrating health care, and building career pathways to strengthening crisis response systems and reducing criminal justice involvement. It’s a daunting list.

At 15,000 feet, we see how these pivotal policies and practices run up against state budget priorities, planning capabilities, interagency cooperation, leadership, and economic realities — even long-held attitudes about personal responsibility.

On the ground, homelessness presents as a crisis, as invisible as it is visible, a nuisance for some and a heartbreak for others.

Due to COVID-19, OHRA has been without volunteers for almost two years. It is finally ready to welcome back volunteers to all its programs. If you think you might be interested or have questions, email volunteer@helpingashland.org.

After serving as national coordinator of the Annenberg Challenge, Ashland resident Barbara Cervone co-founded the nonprofit What Kids Can Do, which documents the vision and power of youth worldwide, along with Next Generation Press, which celebrates youth as co-authors. Email her at cervone.barbara@gmail.com.

Nov. 28 update: Featured photo changed. Original photo, which was furnished to Ashland.news, should have been credited to Roman Battaglia of Jefferson Public Radio.

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