Winter hits the valley

As Tuesday's snow melts, freezing weather will sweep over the Rogue Valley through Thanksgiving, creating black ice on roads while taxing churches and organizations that strive to keep people warm.

ACCESS Inc. is passing out blankets, space heaters and offering other services to low-income families during a cold wave that will push temperatures down into the teens.

"Our lobby — there's not an empty chair in there," said Gary Miller, executive director of ACCESS, which provides energy, food and housing assistance year-round.

Requests for food have spiked 8 percent over last year, energy assistance is up 17 percent and rental assistance has skyrocketed by 50 percent, Miller said. The energy assistance program helps prevent shutoffs of gas or electric service. It can help with the monthly payments as well.

Demand has increased, but the community has stepped up, providing additional food and supplies for families, Miller said.

Now these organizations are gearing up for the most severe cold snap of the season that has already caused slippery conditions on the roads.

A half-inch of snow fell in Medford Tuesday, but Ashland recorded almost three inches in some areas. Jackson County Fire District No. 5 responded to numerous weather-related crashes on Interstate 5 at the south end of the county. Mile 15 near Ashland was particularly treacherous with multiple crashes there, fire district officials said. A roll-over was reported near the Talent interchange in the morning, and a jackknifed semitrailer caused delays northbound on I-5 near milepost 8 in the early afternoon.

The National Weather Service predicted temperatures in the high teens for Medford overnight, but nudging up to 22 degrees tonight.

By Thanksgiving, Ashland will warm up to 40 degrees during the day with an overnight low of 22 as a new weather front rolls into the valley.

The Oregon Department of Transportation is warning motorists to be wary of black ice as the combination of wet weather followed by cold temperatures is a recipe for unusually slippery roads.

Anyone who wants to drive during the holiday should inspect windshield wipers, tires, anti-freeze, radiator hoses, the heater, the defroster and the age of the battery. Try to keep the tank full, particularly if you're traveling through areas that have few gas stations.

Homeless shelters and warming stations are posting fliers and depending on word-of-mouth to alert people they do have a place to stay, particularly after a homeless man, 58-year-old Kevin Anthony Ferris, froze to death last year on the railroad tracks near Jackson Street.

"I think we are looking at a harsh winter," said Paul Tucker, the pastor's son at Calvary Temple, 513 E. Pine St., Central Point.

Tucker said the warming station at the church won't be ready until Sunday, but he's anticipating more cold days ahead. The station provides hot food, a hot drink and a place for people to go for up to four hours to get warm.

With temperatures expected to dip down to 19 degrees tonight, the Ashland Emergency Shelter plans on opening its doors at the United Church of Christ, 717 Siskiyou Blvd.

Once the temperature drops below 20 degrees, the shelter sets up its operation at one of two local churches.

"They don't have a bed, just a floor," said Ruth Coulthard, co-coordinator of the shelter. "It's a no-frills shelter for the night."

Sleeping bags are provided if the homeless person doesn't have one.

Monday night was the first night of the season the shelter has operated because of the cold weather. This is the fourth year the shelter has opened.

Will Holmbeck, men's night manager at the Medford Gospel Mission, said his shelter will allow men who normally wouldn't be allowed inside during cold nights.

"We're trying to get the word out to those who don't normally come in," he said.

The homeless can roll out their sleeping bag on the floor, but are required to leave by 5:30 a.m. Heavily intoxicated men could be sent to the sobering center for care.

Holmbeck said shelters and warming stations are trying to encourage the homeless to seek help, even though many are too proud to ask for it.

"The fellow who froze to death last year, Kevin Ferris — we tried to get him to come in the week before," he said. "We don't want it to happen again.

"We don't want someone to nap like Kevin did and end up dead along railroad tracks."

Damian Mann is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4476, or e-mail Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Hannah Guzik contributed to this story.

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