July 21, 2024

New subcommittee takes aim at homelessness: ‘We’re not going to be able to solve everything’

By Morgan Rothborne, Ashland.news

A little more than a dozen people gathered around a conference table at 52 Winburn Way Tuesday evening to begin the work of addressing homelessness in Ashland.

The Housing and Human Services Homeless Services Master Plan Subcommittee was convening for the first time in response to direction from Ashland City Council to create a strategic plan to grapple the thorny problem. The city has limited dollars, noted City Councilor Bob Kaplan. There are resources available and there are gaps within those resources where people slip through and remain stuck on the streets.

The subcommittee is expected to create and complete a homelessness masterplan to direct how Ashland can best use its limited dollars and cooperate with existing resources by June of this year. The tight timeline is a reason for optimism, Kaplan said.

“It’s an opportunity, the way I see it. … To really lay out the problem and what we’re doing about it in Ashland and identify gaps and the opportunities for investment, it’s not just a plan for a plan’s sake. … It cannot be a science project, it cannot be a huge exercise. It’s got to be something that’s fairly focused and practical,” he said.

The group quickly began sorting through the pieces of the puzzle at hand. Data on this population is limited and largely stems from bird’s-eye-view federal sources, said Linda Reid, liaison to the subcommittee from the city’s Housing and Human Services Advisory Committee.

“We all would love to believe that there is amazing data in the world around our homeless populations. … But we don’t have that sort of nitty gritty, ‘What is happening in our community’ (data)’” she said.

She encouraged the group to think of ways data about Ashland’s homeless population could be accessed — without any cost. Echo Fields, chair of the subcommittee, stated nonprofit Opportunities for Housing, Resources & Assistance may have some data it can share. Helena Turner, co-founder of the Oregon Health and Sciences University’s street nursing team, stated the team could likely create some data.

Numbers about how many of those homeless are experiencing substance abuse disorder is also limited to self-reporting, a data source that underreports the scope of the problem, Fields said.

Subcommittee members will have to develop an understanding of the kaleidoscope of agencies and organizations from one side of the valley to another, Fields said. Rising to a white board in the room, she began writing names — Council of Governments, ACCESS, Community of Care, OHRA, the Homeless Task Force, etc. etc., she said.

“It’s stakeholders, it’s the organizations that money flows through, the organizations that make decisions about budgetary impacts,” she said.

Returning to the board she wrote “Homeless People,” reminding the room that this group has no elaborate label or acronym but can never be excluded from the work.

Fields encouraged subcommittee members to familiarize themselves with the various facets of Ashland’s homelessness landscape, including the night lawn sleeping area behind the council chamber at 1175 E. Main Street, the OHRA shelter, the 2200 Ashland St. shelter and Clay Street Park.

In becoming acquainted with the pieces of the puzzle, subcommittee members will then piece them together with recommendations and descriptions of where gaps between services are. Multiple attendees said they were ready and eager to speak to the gaps.

Turner said in her work as a psychiatric nurse volunteering twice a week with the street nursing team, she is reaching those slipping through the mental health system.

“I’m kind of bridging that gap where people are not ill enough to be hospitalized. … But are clearly not doing well. I’m trying to treat the schizophrenia, bipolar and substance abuse disorders that are not being treated in our regular system,” she said.

Ashland Police Sgt. Rob Leanord was appointed to the subcommittee to represent Ashland’s law enforcement. As the sergeant assigned to south Ashland, he reported growth in Ashland’s homeless population.

“I’m talking to a lot of people, a large group of the unhoused, and I’m seeing an influx of people from out of the area that are not Ashland residents. … They’re being told that Ashland has the resources,” he said.

Leonard also stressed that homelessness cannot be made a law enforcement problem. Police officers shouldn’t be put in the position of “penalizing someone for their frustration and lack of help,” he said. He also stated he was in favor of Ashland’s new camping ordinance as an additional tool for officers. Sitting beside him, Debbie Neisewander, an advocate for Ashland’s homeless people, shook her head.

“One of the important things that will happen in these meetings is we will have different viewpoints on what reality is,” Fields said.

“There is amazing work in helping to build bridges between folks who have a hard time talking with each other.”

As Medford intensifies its sweeps of camps and evictions of homeless people from longtime camping locations such as Hawthorne Park, there are people coming to Ashland, Neisewander said. Some have told her they see Ashland as a safe place where they are less likely to relapse or feel threatened.

Avram Sacks, the volunteer coordinator of the city’s extreme weather shelter, stated the shelter at 2200 Ashland St. is already at capacity.

“We have a snow storm coming in. … We have a lot of people coming from the hills. People that have camps, that live in the hills. If they get too much snow they run out of fuel or they can’t get down, they come into town. And we’re already full with our unhoused people,” he said.

Neisewander said she has been renting out the downstairs room of the Ashland library to create a day-time shelter space from the cold and to prevent people from congregating near the shelter and aggravating its neighbors.

Former city councilor and current OHRA board president Dennis Slattery reminded the group of the problem’s immense number of small details. As a city councilor on the first ad hoc committee on homelessness, he remembered “our first controversial win” had been the installation of a portable toilet.

“Focus is going to be a really important thing. This is a huge, huge topic. We’re not going to solve everything. And we’re going to have to be a bit pragmatic about things. … There are layers and layers,” he said.

The subcommittee will accept applications until 5 p.m. Monday, Jan. 15. Those with lived experience of homelessness or who live in South Ashland are encouraged to apply, Reid said.

To apply to the subcommittee or learn more, visit its webpage.

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