Cold nights in Ashland

The severe weather that has dominated life in Ashland over the past several weeks has made the question "Where will I sleep tonight?" even more dire for the local homeless population.

Rooster, a man in his mid-twenties who claims he has been on the streets since returning from Iraq last year, says that staying dry is the most important part of staying warm. The difficulty is finding a dry place that he and his friends, Julie and Grim, can consistently go.

"There are squats all over," says Julie, "but they always get busted or get taken over by junkies, so we usually have to find a new spot after a night or two."

Shelter from the storm

Because there are no permanent homeless shelters in Ashland, the Interfaith Care Community of Ashland and the Community Emergency Response Team have shouldered the task of providing shelters at one of several locations when the temperature drops below 20 degrees or the weather is deemed hazardous by a city official.

These "no-frills" shelters are exactly what their name implies: a warm room, space for bedding and not much else &

except when local restaurants donate refreshments.

"Around Christmas last year I just felt that someone needed to do something for the people out in the cold weather," says Ruth Coulthard, a member of the Congregationalist Church who originally came up with the idea. "My church gave me permission to use their facilities and I thought that if it was 'no-frills' it would be possible to do without a lot of intense organizing or any real funding."

The Unitarian and the First Presbyterian churches, along with the city council, offered their staff and buildings for the project as well.

Besides preventing weather related death and injury, Coulthard says an important goal of the project is to create a mechanism for integrating our community in terms of forming relationships across economic divides.

"Everyone has been very appreciative," she says. "It's been a very positive experience for me too. I really appreciate getting to know our guests and keeping in touch with them."

Blowin' in the Wind

For a variety of reasons, some choose to brave the elements in a series of camps above Lithia Park. Some of the reasons are personal &

a survivalist attitude is common among those who willingly sleep outdoors in a blizzard &

while some are practical. Many are unwilling to leave their possessions unattended or carry them down a mountain in the snow.

Regardless of their rationale, this set-up seems to work for them and, as Daniel Rueff, a homeless activist in Ashland says, "[they] are more worried about flashlights than the weather," a reference to police officers and forest rangers breaking up their camps.

The camps outside the city limits are considered illegal during fire season and it is always illegal to camp inside of Ashland.

The cold weather actually makes the interactions between the homeless and the police people to go to the shelters and, at each officer's discretion, occasionally give them transport.

In the light of the difficulties created by extreme weather conditions, the lessons learned by the volunteers at the emergency shelters can apply to anyone.

"Overwhelmingly we learn that people are people," says Coulthard. "In all situations you can get to know and respect them and help them with their needs."

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