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Tidings file photoHomeless people line up to enter the Pioneer Hall homeless shelter. The building needs significant upgrades if its to be used again as a shelter.

Ashland faith leaders issue ‘call for action’ on homelessness

An open letter from the Ashland Interfaith Clergy Circle published as an advertisement in Thursday’s Tidings bearing the signatures of 35 local faith leaders calls for recognition that homelessness stops being a “crisis” when the homeless get a home — and that it’s time for the community to take responsibility for that as an ongoing function.

“We entreat the whole community to take the action needed to build, fund and sustainable operate a shelter for men, women and children, the elderly, open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, local and accessible for those in need,” it reads in part.

The 757-word letter was written by the Rev. Richenda Fairhurst of the First United Methodist Church of Ashland, after taking notes during a monthly meeting of interfaith clergy. The ad was paid for by the Rev. Dan Fowler of the First Presbyterian Church of Ashland.

The letter follows a progression of asking people to get the severity of the situation, to understand it’s not going away, to open hearts with compassion for fellow humans, then to open checkbooks to take action with a shelter and other resources.

“We wanted to say that this is the time,” said Fairhurst, in an interview. “It’s an important moment for Ashland. Winter is coming and we can’t abandon people to the streets. There’s tremendous agreement on that in Ashland. What we really need is money. We believe a lot of folks in Ashland might want to help financially.”

The “call to action” in the letter asks all residents to realize “we are one neighborhood … with a deep and growing need … for all to have access to clean water, sustaining food, safe shelter and basic medical care.”

One signatory, the Rev. Pandora Canton, chaplain of Asante Ashland Community Hospital, said, “These are brothers, sisters, children on the street and they are part of all of us, no different from us. They deserve food, housing, warmth. I see, working in a hospital, what living on the street can do to their health and well-being. I see addictions, frostbite, dehydration, wounds, cellulitis, deterioration of general health.”

The response she hopes for, says Canton, is that “the community finally sees we are responsible for people who are homeless here and need shelter from extreme cold and heat, day care, psychological, social and medical help, so they’re not bouncing back to the hospital all the time. Most of them want to provide for themselves. If we support them, they can be a more regular and supportive, contributing part of our community.”

The letter has already inspired responses, said Fowler, with one Realtor asking him specifics on a property needed for a single shelter, so as to focus the hunt. The hot real estate market has caused listed properties to sell rapidly.

Fowler said, “City hall has told us they recognize that what we have now, the piecemeal shelters, cannot continue forever. With the letter, we wanted to make sure people, not just the City Council, understands that.”

The letter was presented to the City Council and staff Monday. In response, Mayor John Stromberg said the first important thing about the issue is “the homeless are in a state of ongoing trauma. It’s not something that happened once upon a time … The council study session Monday indicates increasing involvement in finding appropriate ways to help.”

Stromberg just joined the board of the local Continuum of Care program, which channels funding for homeless programs from HUD (federal Housing & Urban Development) — and should help fix the huge inequality of per capita spending, compared to, say, Multnomah County, he said.

Interim city Administrator Adam Hanks said the city continues to coordinate with shelter-seeking groups, such as the 1-Site Committee, and is inventorying city buildings and properties, as well as lining up to fast-track any private property, if it’s a good candidate for shelter.

It hasn’t been formally determined, but “the council is carefully considering what their role is in the effort,” said Hanks. “It’s safe to say there’s a consensus that the city does play a role … and we have real solid communication now between the city and other entities.”

It will take a lot of money, but Fowler said “from what I’ve seen, there’s a pretty good number of high rollers here in Ashland and some have said they will support it. Two or three well-heeled individuals would make a big difference. Maybe the Oregon Community Foundation can help.”

Fowler’s goal, he said, is a single site taking care of people’s needs, with an intake person, mental health counseling, showers, storage, job counseling, so people “have a way up and out of the cycle of poverty.”

At bottom, he adds, “We are our brother’s and sister’s caretaker. It doesn’t matter who you are, what religion or age or income. God calls us to care for them and that’s what I plan on working for in my time here.”

The letter invites anyone to sign on. It concludes by asking for “the generosity of the comfortable, the stewardship of the professional, the compassion of the faithful, and the leadership of the political…it is unconscionable to imagine November arriving and there still not being a place for our homeless neighbors.”

The letter concludes by saying those looking for more information or wishing to add their name to those signing it should email either the Rev. Fairhurst (revrichenda@ashlandmethodist.org) or the Rev. Fowler (revfowler@yahoo.com).

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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