June 18, 2024

Viewpoint: We should be using Pioneer Hall now to feed the unhoused and hungry

The public building has served as the hub for community meals for years — and could fill that role now except for the city’s unnecessary ban on its use, says one of the groups behind the Ashland Peace Meal
By Jason Houk

I wanted to address some confusion and help paint a more complete picture of the challenges that prevent public use of Pioneer Hall in Ashland.

For the last eight years, our nonprofit, Southern Oregon Jobs with Justice, has partnered with the city of Ashland to help ensure that our most vulnerable neighbors have access to food and shelter. For many winters, it was SOJWJ volunteers who ran the city-sponsored emergency weather shelters, donating countless volunteer hours. Our group also sponsors the Ashland Peace Meal, which provides meals to homeless and food insecure folks.

A critical piece that holds all these programs together is community access to public spaces, specifically Pioneer Hall. For years, Pioneer Hall has served as the hub for community meals, emergency shelter and refuge.

Pioneer Hall is the humble log cabin that occupies the space across from Lithia Park. It is the place we serve our meals in. It is the space for community meetings, wedding receptions, memorials and more. The hall is ideally located in the downtown, close to bus stops, neighborhoods and Lithia Park. It meets the needs of the folks we serve.

This winter we are witnessing previously unseen levels of poverty and food insecurity. This year the Ashland Community Food Bank is reporting a 149% increase in demand. Our community meals have seen similar increases. The folks we are serving are not all homeless. More and more housed neighbors are relying on these meals to feed their families.

As reported in the Ashland.news piece “Pioneer Hall too hazardous for use now says acting city manager,” there seem to be some misunderstandings in the article and I would like to clear these up and give a clearer picture of the struggle our community have faced.

First off, SOJWJ maintains comprehensive liability insurance that is renewed every year. We carry liability riders with the city that do expire, and we always share the updated documents with every new contract.

Regarding the “trash talk,” I wanted to specifically address the quote, “(acting City Manager Sabrina) Cotta stated these incidents — with additional issues related to trash — have happened with this organization in the past.”

I would be happy to deep dive into “these incidents,” but there seems to continue to be some misinformation regarding the trash situation last December at Pioneer Hall.

Just to to be clear, in fall 2022, SOJWJ and Peace House signed an agreement with the city for use of Pioneer Hall for our meal programs with the stipulation that we make the space available for Ashland’s Emergency Weather Program.

The agreement we signed with the city spelled out clearly that all trash would be removed from the hall to city dumpsters after every meal and event. This is a practice that SOJWJ and Peace House followed religiously.

Last December, the city called for 20 days of consecutive emergency weather shelter. We recognized early that the effort was unsustainable and dangerous and that the buildup of trash was one of the problems. Our many calls for remedy were ignored.

I would like to share an email exchange with the city from one year ago. This email was sent Thursday, Dec. 14, 2022:

“When is ohra taking over? Jason and I hauled all the trash out on Sat afternoon, but there’s currently nobody doing that for the shelter. The kitchen is full of food that continues to be left out after the shelter, and food is left throughout the building. The mice situation will get bad again very quickly. There are probably 8-10 bags of trash on the side of the building. As a reminder, both peace house and Sojwj agreed to haul our trash to the dumpster in the park, and we’ll continue to cover our days, but there’s a lot piling up, and it’s more than what we agreed to do (and more than we can even fit in our vehicle to haul away). “

Our follow-up to the city manager the next day:

“No response or action. We wound up emptying the Rav and going over there late yesterday and handling the garbage again ourselves. I wasn’t happy about that, but I couldn’t just leave it. It filled up the vehicle, and took a significant amount of time to clean it all up. Ick. We will be taking care of the peace meal trash today and tomorrow and will add the shelter garbage to that, but that’s the extent of what we’re able to do. “

And in the follow-up email Dec. 15, 2022, it seems the city was accepting some responsibility for it. From Linda Reid:

“Regarding the issues with the trash at Pioneer Hall, I can reach out to the parks department to ask them to pick up the extra bagged garbage. I will also ask them to bring an extra garbage to try to cut down on the litter around the building.”

Just to be clear, we were doing our due diligence and beyond to keep Pioneer Hall clean and rat-free. During these months the city staff removed the garbage cans, and recycling bin from the hall despite our pleas to the contrary. Despite promising to do so, the city never returned them.

To be clear, SOJWJ takes its role as a community partner and steward of Pioneer Hall very seriously. We work in good faith with the city manager, city councilors and staff. We work to cultivate good relationships with the city, parks department and Ashland police. And we always try to balance the needs of our community, neighborhoods and downtown. Our meals and organized events are built around a culture of support, trust, love and respect. We work hard to protect folks from dangerous elements and have no tolerance for violence. We strive to create a safe, warm, comfortable space for people, even if only for a few hours.

Since spring of this year, a group of us had been working with former city manager on identifying public space for shelter and meals. The question of the status of Pioneer Hall consistently came up and we always heard a new excuse as to why this building was still closed. In March we were told our contract was ending because construction was imminent. All spring and summer the hall sat empty. In September we asked again, “What is the status of repairs? When is the building expected to be reopened?” We were told, “The City expects to bid the project for construction at the end of summer and start work in fall….” Then in early October, Mayor Tonya Graham wrote, “I spoke with Joe about this on Friday. The repairs are taking longer than expected to get underway, so there is some chance of a short-term opening for the next couple of months.”

We sat in a meeting with our new city manager and every request to use Pioneer Hall for weekly community meals was met with a hard “NO!” We examined many different possibilities but none included returning to Pioneer Hall. Then we were offered a deal for using the hall strictly for our Thanksgiving and holiday meals, an offer that included our group getting the building completely cleaned and rat-free prior to the meal. We were expected to carry liability insurance and pay several hundred dollars for each day we used the hall, among other requirements.

We were stunned by the offer but more shocked that our beloved Pioneer Hall was allowed to fall into such disrepair. Apparently the city has ceased all pest control and maintenance of the building. This is something we knew we could help fix, so we agreed to the manager’s verbal offer. We emailed asking for more details and then — nothing. The city did not provide the details in writing, they did not create a contract. In the end we did find new locations for our holiday events, thanks to the Presbyterian Church.

Currently we are told that Pioneer Hall is off the table for community meals. Furthermore, we are told to consider our future without the building. We are told the building is in such disrepair from rats that it is now a health hazard. We are also told that city staff is too overstretched to reopen Pioneer Hall. The city tells us that the building is empty and they could never make it habitable, despite the fact that the Ashland Scout Troop is still using the building on Wednesday nights. We are told the facilities are closed, cold and dark despite evidence to the contrary. “It’s a known hazard.… Having been in that building, it was not very warm and welcoming,” Cotta tell us.

We know it doesn’t have to be this way.

One year ago Pioneer Hall was an open and vibrant community center.

The schedule last December looked like this: Every Sunday we served a community breakfast. Mondays we hosted kids crafts and game nights. Tuesdays, a meal was served by Uncle Foods Diner, sponsored by Peace House. On Wednesdays the Scouts met. Thursdays, the Ashland Peace Meal. A year ago this Friday was our annual holiday party with meal and gifts. And finally on Saturday we hosted a Holiday Pop-up Sale for the underprivileged.

There is nothing new today that would prevent community groups from using Pioneer Hall right now as it is intended to be used. SOJWJ has offered to pay for the costs of cleaning Pioneer Hall, the costs of extermination and continued maintenance. Pioneer Hall is our building and we want to take care of it.

Today our community meals are held outside, regardless of temperatures, and we’re hearing from some folks that they are no longer able to come to dinner. It’s too cold for disabled and elderly people to stand in the cold and eat a meal, so many are going hungry while the only community building with a public kitchen sits empty.

I just hope concerned citizens get a more complete picture of the issues and controversy. We have been working in good faith all summer with the city to open the hall and we have heard nothing but excuses, gaslighting and deception.

We’ve continued to ask for the use of Pioneer Hall and agree to the city’s numerous stipulations for its temporary use. Construction isn’t slated to begin until mid-2024, and in the meantime, this public, community building could be used to provide a space for our community meals, which are free and accessible to all.

Ashland resident Jason Houk is board treasurer of Southern Oregon Jobs with Justice.