Out of the Cold

    First Presbyterian Church in Ashland offers homeless people a place to sleep during the cold weather. Donated sleeping bags and blankets are available for sleeping on the floor. - Bob Pennell

    ASHLAND — Although there is no homeless shelter in Ashland, three churches are cooperating to provide overnight space every Sunday in winter — and any night that it's forecast to be below 20 degrees, as it is the next several nights.

    One or two dozen homeless people wander into the spacious hall of the First Presbyterian Church at Walker Avenue and Siskiyou Boulevard, spread out their sleeping bags and pads, smoke outside until the 9 p.m. — lockup time — then settle in for a night among friends they know from the homeless community.

    It's a clean, welcoming space, with hot tea, cocoa and instant oatmeal, and it's provided on super-cold nights because the homeless can edge into hypothermia after several sub-freezing nights, says Ruth Coulthard, the town's main organizer for shelter and food programs, as well as office manager for Peace House.

    The churches — Presbyterian, Unitarian Universalist and Congregational United Church of Christ — collaborated five years ago to provide safety-net shelter, with the Presbyterian church donating the sleeping space, which she calls, "unlock the door, sleep on the floor, no frills." Elderly disabled, children or other at-risk people get referred to social agencies by trained volunteers of St. Vincent de Paul who are reachable through Our Lady of the Mountain Catholic Church in Ashland, she says.

    The overnight guests are mostly men of all ages, and they have backgrounds working in such trades as landscaping and construction, says Coulthard. On Wednesday evening, one woman, Nala King, 21, came to sleep, noting she'd been sleeping with one blanket in an abandoned van, which was very cold.

    "This town is amazing," says King. "You couldn't ask for a better community. Things like this don't happen in normal cities. It's a blessing. It saved my life." King says she went to Ashland High School but was kicked out in 10th grade and abandoned by her parents, but "I would love to have a home and work."

    Not all guests are involuntarily homeless, says volunteer Barbie Breneiser, the "host" for the night. For five years she has been sleeping in a corner on the floor, like the rest of them, she says, adding that the program gives away sleeping bags, donated by Big R, but needs more, rated to 5 degrees.

    The homeless people have many resources for food around town, she says, and often bring in pizzas and other dishes to share in the evening.

    "I'm here because it's good company," says Dan Mark, who often lives in his car and makes money recycling bottles. "It's real nice here. These are friendly, smart people and will always share what they have."

    Volunteer Glenn Street agreed, noting that no guest will take the last two or three pieces of a pizza.

    "Some fall into this life because of drugs. Some choose it," says Street. "It's amazing how polite they are. They never leave any mess. You start talking with them and you soon realize the difference between you and them is so slender. One turn of events can make the difference between whether you're coming here as a volunteer or a guest."

    A nighttime low of 20 degrees is very cold and the shelter system, sometimes supported by the city, using the Community Center, should open when it's going to be 35 degrees, says Harriet Snyder of the city's Homeless Coalition. This would require other churches to open doors to overnight guests, she said.

    "It's really shameful that's all we have. It's a wonderful place when it's cold. It's terrible not to have on other nights," says Snyder. "It's not as if they have other choices. Most can't hold a job, especially in this economy."

    Coulthard organizes Uncle Food's Diner at 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays in the hall behind Ashland's first United Methodist Church. The Congregational church holds a 9 a.m. Monday breakfast, with showers, she says.

    Morning Star offers a 3 p.m. Sunday meal at the gazebo in Lithia Park, using her own resources, though she lives on Social Security disability — and gets raw ingredients for soups, pastas and salad from the Ashland Food Angels. She also gives out socks and gloves and welcomes donations in her name, Karin Dayspring at 162 Alida or 541-326-6233.

    The shelter operates on forecasts from the National Weather Service and Accu-Weather, which predict it will remain under 20 degrees at night for the time being, so the Presbyterian shelter will operate at least through Friday, says Breneiser.

    John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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