June 17, 2024

It’s time to open Pioneer Hall!

By Vanessa Martynse Houk

Will you stand and eat dinner with our neighbors who must eat their meals outside in the cold? Meanwhile, Pioneer Hall sits empty.
For eight years the city of Ashland worked with the Peace Meal to ensure that our most vulnerable neighbors could get inside a public building during the coldest months of the year. For many years, Sojwj/the community peace meals helped the city carry out their emergency ordinance, and we helped carry the emergency shelter, spending thousands of hours of volunteer time, holding the insurance, and saving the city of Ashland hundreds of thousands of dollars. When the shelter moved, access to community-focused meals shifted, and meals were no longer available to anyone hungry. Those new programs focused on shelter residents only. We continued to offer the community peace meals to anyone in need of a warm meal and/or connection and friendship.
Governor Kotek recognized the state of emergency on homelessness, and 1.7 million dollars was granted to the city, money they used to purchase the new shelter building at 2200 Ashland Street. We asked for permission to hold community meals there, and we were told no. From the city’s website, I quote, “Our goal is to create a place where unhoused residents to rest without fear and feel secure enough to move forward with improving their lives.” At the same time, the city continues to deny residents the use of a building where they have historically felt safe.
Let me tell this story one more time. For years, I’ve had the privilege of creating these meals, and some of the best moments of my life have been times when I stood in the kitchen in Pioneer Hall. I would watch as people came through the door carrying everything they owned, and I’d watch their shoulders begin to relax. I’d see that when they put their backpack down on the floor, they set down all the stress, and worry, and often fear that they must carry. They were safe, we were safe together, and we built a community that fosters the city’s goal. They gravitate to the kitchen, and the jokes and laughs that are found there. I’ve watched so many people stand at the edge of that kitchen, soaking up some normal. Over and over again, they’ve told me how important it is, and how the meals provide nourishment that sates much more than hunger.
At a meeting in early November, with two city councilors present, we asked the current city manager, Sabrina Cotta, if we could find a way to use Pioneer Hall again. We had been using the building (with a community partner) up until the end of March 2023, when we were told that construction on the building was imminent and at that time the community meals were moved outside where we continue to be.
We were told that we would be able to rent the building for the Thanksgiving and December celebrations if we met several conditions, all of which we continue to be willing and able to meet. The building has fallen into disrepair, as the city has not had an exterminator in the building for several years (I believe the last time was at least 4 years ago). Inside the building, rodents have chewed through the walls, and someone used rodent foam to fill in a 2″ hole between the kitchen and front room, as well as in other places. These stopgap measures have not been successful. This historic building is one more underdog in this story.
We have moved forward with plans to hold the holiday celebration at the Presbyterian church in Ashland (and thank you church friends for sharing your space).
Meanwhile, the day-to-day meals continue to be held outside in the cold and rain. The city never addressed the needs of its most vulnerable residents other than Mayor Tonya Graham’s message to say, “It’s time to move on from the idea that Pioneer Hall will be available for community meals while we wait for construction to begin.” Construction is set to begin in late spring unless there’s another long delay. City manager, Sabrina Cotta has said, “Pioneer Hall is unavailable.”
It seems disingenuous to me for the city to benefit from $1.7 million in state funding for a state of emergency on homelessness while refusing to work with community partners to get people out of the cold for 90 lousy minutes, three times a week, especially when the community partner has pledged to help handle all risks and responsibilities to serve the people who continue to be at risk of losing their lives, and limbs to exposure. We do not have enough shelter beds for everyone. We continue to leave people outside.
We remind the city that the community meals serve many people who are housed, and otherwise go hungry. We live in a time where access to housing is stretched so thin that many people around us live in substandard housing, and many lack cooking facilities, heat, adequate plumbing and mold. These folks are so afraid of landing outside that they continue to live in conditions that are more “third world” than any of us like to believe. These are our friends and neighbors.
Today at 4 pm we will meet at the edge of the Ashland plaza. Bring your dinner if you can. Bring signs if you can. We will bring some pizzas to share with anyone hungry. We will eat our dinner outside in the cold together, because we want to live in an inclusive community, not just in talks, but in action.