June 17, 2024

It’s Time to Open Pioneer Hall — Now!

If you read my posts, you already know that I am fiercely protective of other people’s privacy. My unhoused friends live on the corner of exposure and invisibility, and everything they do is public. I bear witness to things that must have a wider audience, so I try to tell their stories in a way that protects their identities. I’m changing a few details in the story below in an effort to give her the dignity of invisibility, while at the same time I need all of you to finally see her.

There are pockets of poverty in Ashland where the most basic human needs are not met. We have a housing shortage that enables substandard housing. I have friends who live with extreme mold. I have friends who live in homes without heat, without adequate plumbing, without cooking facilities (so many people especially fall into that third category.) I have friends who used to come to the peace meals when we were delivering around town, who would arrive and stand in front of me shaking from the cold, because their homes lack basic warmth. Many of these people are disabled. Many are seniors.
She is an elderly woman who lives alone, and her grown children live a thousand miles away. I don’t think they’re in touch very often, and I don’t recall hearing about them visiting since we’ve met. Her tiny circle of friends includes neighbors who are worse off than she is, so she spends much of her time trying to take care of them.

For many years she volunteered her time to Ashland nonprofits, some of which now sometimes help her catch up with a bill, or get some bags of groceries. She doesn’t drive anymore, but back when the Peace Meals were held in Pioneer Hall she missed us so much that she overcame her anxiety and hopped on the bus one day to visit us there. That was the sweetest day, because she remembered that she can do all sorts of things that felt out of reach. After that day she began taking the bus across town to go shopping and did other things, and her world got a tiny bit bigger again.

I miss seeing her. She doesn’t come to the meals anymore, because her body can’t handle standing outside in the cold, as much as her heart misses the community she feels there. I’ve often said that the meals provide more than food, there’s a sense of nurturing that we all feel that sates something much deeper than hunger.

Back when she was able to visit the Peace Meals, she often brought a variety of Tupperware containers with her, and she would fill them up with a wide variety of food to take back home and share with her neighbors.

All those people are going hungry. Pioneer Hall sits empty.

Now you see her too.

Please let the Ashland city council, mayor, and city manager know how you feel. I want them to be flooded with emails this weekend. You don’t have to be local to express your opinions on this matter. Please send an email to: council@ashland.or.us, sabrina.cotta@ashland.or.us. It’s freezing cold, and raining this morning. We can, (and must) do better.

–Vanessa Houk