As Jason and Vanessa Houk run about the kitchen in Pioneer Hall readying Wednesday’s Community Peace Meal, they smile as they always do, despite having recently lost a loved one, Vanessa’s mother.
The husband-and-wife Houk team has worked with Southern Oregon Jobs with Justice for about 11 years, but they’ve been in the humanitarian field for nearly 20 years.
They facilitate and often cook the community peace meals five days a week, all but Tuesdays and Sundays. Recently the meals have moved to Pioneer Hall. This means that they connect with local donors, prepare the meals at another location and then bring them in, stage the building and ready everything, all while greeting guests and managing groups of people, pets and volunteers who filter in.
Tuesday meals are taken care of by Peace House’s Uncle Food’s Diner at the First United Methodist Church and Sundays are facilitated by a local resident Komac Tapp, who serves up a giant pot of soup at the Lithia Park Gazebo. All meals are made possible by support from a plethora of community members and organizations.
But making those meals doesn’t even scratch the surface of what the Houk’s do on a daily basis outside of working hours, including volunteering with both the winter shelter and the emergency winter shelters, community outreach to help as many people as possible and connecting those that can give to those in need.
They never stop.
A friend, Amy Stewart, has organized a meal relief effort for these two during this stressful time for them. She’s asked that anyone who is able sign up to cook a community peace meal for the next couple of weeks to give them a little breathing room. The Houks are still at it, but this would provide them with a little bit of extra support in a time when it’s dearly needed.
Stewart asks that two to three people cook something every day either with or without meat to feed a total of about 30 people. That way if three people cooked enough food for 10 people each day, some dishes could be vegetarian and it wouldn’t put too much strain on any one person.
She created a simple sign up form online at bit.ly/2RDTbqM. A high fat content is preferred because these meals are feeding Ashland’s vulnerable and unhoused residents, but vegetables are always a plus.
Jason Houk said he and Vanessa were drawn to this line of work because they’ve been in similar situations and can’t sit by and watch their neighbors struggle.
“We struggled to find stable housing ourselves and if it wasn’t for friends, family and the community, we would be homeless now, so we have a lot of empathy for the struggle of people who can’t provide even the most basic human needs,” Jason Houk said. “It’s who we are. We love the community.”
The Houks said there’s been an influx of peace meal guests and homeless because large businesses that own the majority of rental properties increased their rent prices and evicted tenants at the start of the new year when they couldn’t pay.
Anything can be donated that could be useful to a homeless and vulnerable individual, such as warm gear, sleeping bags, tents, new underwear and socks and non-perishable food items can be dropped off at a donation box at A Street Print and Parcel at 258 A St. The Houks disperse these items to people in need and often the items end up on a card table at the peace meal so guests can “shop.”
Winter shelter update
The emergency winter shelter will operate any night when the temperature is expected to drop to 20 degrees or below and will float to wherever a location is avaiable. Information will be posted when the emergency shelter is open on the shelter website (www.philjohncocknetwork.com/winter-shelters), on the bulletin board on the Plaza and on a post in front of Pioneer Hall, Vanessa Houk said.
Phil Johncock, shelter consultant, said the new winter shelter model is working well. He said by Dec. 31, 88 people were screened and 48 have stayed in the shelter at least one night. He said volunteers are working to bring case management to those who may not be a guest in the shelter, but are still on the waiting list.
They are still waiting for the permit approval to operate the shelter out of the 2082 E. Main St. location.
Johncock said this year 40 percent of guests are female which is an increase from 25 percent last year.
“I think it’s because they feel safer coming into the shelter this year,” Johncock said.
He said he doesn’t have accurate numbers on how many guests have been housed or found jobs, but he’s hoping to have that information by the end of the winter season.
To sign up to cook a meal during the next couple of weeks, visit bit.ly/2RDTbqM.
For more information about Ashland winter shelters, visit www.philjohncocknetwork.com/winter-shelters.