ashland.news
July 14, 2024

Reopen Pioneer Hall for Peace Meals, supporters say at Plaza rally

Karen Hill-Wagoner, a Peace House Uncle Food’s Diner volunteer, serves pizza to Debbie Niesewander, an Ashland homeless advocate. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
December 11, 2023

Free meals have to be served outdoors since city stopped allowing access to building that’s needed renovation for at least six years

By Morgan Rothborne, Ashland.news

A small but determined group rallied in the Ashland Plaza to bring awareness to the cause of Peace Meals and the locked doors at Ashland’s Pioneer Hall.  

After roughly eight years of Peace Meals — meals for free for anyone who is hungry organized by nonprofit Southern Oregon Jobs with Justice — held in Pioneer Hall, this year the city has stated the group cannot use the building due to safety concerns with the structure, said event organizer Jason Houk. 

Around 30 people were eating pizza in the shadow of City Hall Monday evening to highlight the moorless aspect of the Peace Meals without Pioneer Hall. Standing on the wall at the edge of the Plaza, Houk addressed the attendees, describing the situation as “heartbreaking.”

Jason Houk, at left, a Southern Oregon Jobs with Justice board member, speaks to a small crowd gathered to protest the city’s closure of Pioneer Hall for this winter’s feeding program. The group, along with Peace House’s Uncle Food’s Diner, has sponsored the free meals for eight years. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

“We’ve been working in good faith with the city to try to open that up. … We’re just really frustrated, we’re working to find solutions, we’ve been meeting with just one excuse after another,” Houk said. 

First, the group was informed the city ended exterminator services for Pioneer Hall last year and they could use the building if they were willing to pay for an exterminator, pay to have the building cleaned, maintain a $3 million insurance policy and pay $300 per day of use. To access Pioneer Hall for Thanksgiving and Christmas, Houk said organizers were willing to meet all requests. 

Houk said after organizers accepted the offer, the city manager declined his calls for a week before informing him the Presbyterian Church would be an ideal place for the organization to hold Christmas Dinner.

Cars honk as they drive by the protesters holding signs advocating for opening Pioneer Hall for a winter feeding program sponsored by Southern Oregon Jobs with Justice and Peace House. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

The city has highlighted garbage issues last year. Houk said this problem was connected to the city’s use of Pioneer Hall for its severe weather shelter. He reminded the city, he said, that it removed the dumpsters and trash service to the building. Houk said he and his wife worked to clean up the trash, helped run the severe weather shelter and after years of utilizing and helping to maintain the building, they feel attachment to it. 

“We’ve been accused of feeling like they owe us Pioneer Hall, ‘Well kinda. … It’s the only city space that would meet our needs,’” he said. 

Protest organizers asked people to bring their dinner to the Ashland Plaza Monday to experience eating in the outdoor cold. For those who didn’t bring their own food they had pizza available. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

The Ashland Community Center is the only alternative commercial kitchen in a city building, but it has been closed to any use for five years due to structural issues. 

Peace Meals are now held in the gazebo in Lithia Park on Thursdays and Fridays. The population attending these meals has little access to stability and a great appreciation for it, Houk said. The group tries to keep its meals downtown in reliable, accessible, and familiar settings. 

But Lithia Park is too removed for some, especially now that the weather is growing consistently colder, said Kathy Hill-Wagoner, a longtime volunteer at the Peace Meal, Ashland’s Peace House and the Ashland Food Bank. 

Karen Hill Wagoner, represented Peace House’s Uncle Food’s Diner at the protest on the Ashland Plaza Monday. Peace House has provided meals in Ashland for 30 years, most recently in Pioneer Hall in Lithia Park. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

“Our seniors aren’t coming. It’s too cold and it’s dark. We’re cold, by the time I get done my fingers are numb. We’re (volunteers) seniors too,” she said. 

Hill-Wagoner also stated that the local Scout Troop has been allowed to hold meetings in Pioneer Hall recently. Through her brother’s affiliation with the scouts, she learned of the meetings and drove over with her husband to find lights on and people inside Pioneer Hall. When she contacted Ashland city councilors about the discrepancy, she stated Councilor Dylan Bloom first denied the scouts were using the hall, then offered her an apology. 

The group gathered on the Ashland Plaza to discuss the problems created when the city decided to not allow the groups to host their feeding program at Pioneer Hall. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

The need for food assistance is growing, she said. The Ashland Food Bank has recorded a 150% increase in demand. Volunteers can box up meals to take home for those who don’t want to brave the cold but what’s harder for Hill-Wagoner is those who are seeking something beyond the food itself.  

“Some of the people who come to our meals, they don’t have anyone. One guy lives alone, he just doesn’t have any support. He comes out to visit and be with people,” she said. 

Email Ashland.news reporter Morgan Rothborne at morganr@ashland.news.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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