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Big Freeze Heightens Focus On Warming Shelters

By Sanne Specht

Mail Tribune

Local shelters are scrambling to provide lifesaving warmth for the region’s homeless on dangerously cold nights as meteorologists predict Jackson County’s below-freezing temperatures will continue at least through the week.

Three warming shelters in Ashland provide respite from the deadly cold three nights a week. Medford’s Gospel Mission opens its doors to all in need when temperatures drop below freezing, as does a Central Point warming station that also provides shelter for people with pets.

The ongoing cold snap already has claimed one victim. Elijah Pickard-Aguilar, 29, was found dead Dec. 31, behind a strip mall on South Central Avenue in Medford. An employee from nearby La Clinica Women’s Health Center discovered Pickard-Aguilar’s body as she was walking to work and reported it to authorities at about 10 a.m.

Pickard-Aguilar was found partially clothed despite the below-freezing temperatures. He had succumbed to hypothermia, an autopsy confirmed. Hypothermia victims sometimes can experience a sensation that they are overheating as they freeze to death, and shed clothing before they die, police said,

Pickard-Aguilar had only a few possessions with him when he died. Drugs and alcohol did not appear to be a factor in his death, police said.

“People on the streets are not there because everything in their life is OK,” said Dee Anne Everson, director of United Way of Jackson County.

“In these moments, when it counts, we have to find a way to welcome these people indoors. For that young man it is too late. But for a lot (of people in need) it is not. “

Ashland’s First Presbyterian Church, 1615 Clarke Avenue, opens its doors at 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays. Trinity Episcopal Church, 44 North Second Street in Ashland is open on Wednesdays at the same hours. And Pioneer Hall, 73 Winburn Street near Lithia Park is open on Thursdays, said Emily Berndt, agency relations coordinator with the new 211 information center.

Those who enter the shelters must check out by 7:30 a.m., she said.

The Medford Gospel Mission, 125 West Jackson Street, opens its chapel all night long as a warming shelter for homeless men, said Bill Gourley, director.

“We had 12 additional people there (Sunday) night because of the cold,” Gourley said, adding female homeless people are being cared for in the nearby women’s shelter

Mission policies that require sobriety are relaxed for the warming shelters, which will remain open at least until April, he said.

“Even if a person has been drinking, we let them in because the danger (of freezing to death) is so high,” Gourley said.

However, everyone must be out of the shelters by around 6:30 a.m., Gourley said.

A Central Point warming station is open at Calvary Temple Church, 513 E. Pine St. The warming station is open any night Sunday through Thursday that temperatures dip to 32 degrees or below. Warming station hours are 9 p.m. to 8 a.m. Unlike other shelters, Calvary Outreach will take pets, officials said.

The Calvary Outreach Warming Station was created in late 2009 after Debbie Saxbury, a longtime Central Point resident, read reports of Carl Luther Olsen, an 85-year-old homeless man who was found dead in north Medford on Nov. 9 of that year.

Everson praised shelter workers and volunteers, but also voiced concern that the homeless have nowhere warm to go during the day as freezing temperatures remain long after the morning checkout times. Jackson County’s two client-run, drop-in day centers for the mentally ill, DASIL and Hawthorne House, closed this fall, leaving nowhere for those in need to gather or gain support during the day, she said.

“It was 17 degrees this morning as I drove to work,” Everson said. “I saw a man sitting next to (a funeral home). He was huddled up against a building. That’s too cold to be outside.”

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email

This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.

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