On the outskirts of Ashland, a few blocks from the Exit 14 onramp to Interstate 5, Cass Sinclair walks through the gutted ground floor of a former Super 8 motel.
“After we’re done with our whole first phase of renovations—we have to put in an elevator, we have to put in a fire suppression system through the whole building—then we’ll look to create a commercial kitchen space here,” she says, motioning around a large room of bare drywall.
Sinclair is the executive director of Options for Helping Residents of Ashland or OHRA, a nonprofit that helps people struggling with homelessness. The construction site she’s walking through is a motel being converted into shelter for people making the initial transition from living outside to indoors.
“Regularly we’re probably seeing 50 to 60 people a day here,” she said.
The lobby houses a resource center for guests where OHRA workers help with Section 8 housing applications, writing resumes, and health insurance enrollment.
The motel is one of 19 such properties around Oregon that make up Project Turnkey, the pandemic-inspired program that converts underused hotels and motels into emergency shelters.
There have been guests who haven’t seen a doctor in 15 years, said Lisa Smith, OHRA’s director of program services.
“During their stay here they got medical care, applied for disability, and that gentleman is now getting a housing voucher,” Smith said. “So, I foresee him being housed for the first time in his adult life and he is 57 years old.”
Before Project Turnkey started, Jackson County had 171 shelter beds, according to Amy Cuddy, the Medford regional director of the Oregon Community Foundation, which distributed the program’s grants. She says the program added 115 more beds in the county.
“To go from 171 and then add 115 in about eight months’ time is a big increase,” Cuddy said.
Project Turnkey was paid for with almost $75 million appropriated by the state legislature in 2020 and 2021.
The past year was also busy for Rogue Retreat, a nonprofit homeless service provider in Medford. Just before Thanksgiving it opened a shelter in Ashland with small pre-fabricated Pallet shelters that will house 49 people. Around the same time, Rogue Retreat opened Foundry Village in Grants Pass which includes 17 tiny homes. And there are spaces for 90 people at its urban campground in Medford, which opened in the summer of 2020 and which is now being winterized with rigid tents.
“We are exploding, if I can dare say it that way. We’re really growing,” said Rogue Retreat Executive Director Chad McComas.
He says the funding and political will for programs like their urban campground would not have been available if it weren’t for the pandemic.
“The pandemic pushed the issue to the front,” he said. “And it’s actually been so successful we have cities around the state trying to copy it. So, it is working. The pandemic was a nice push to get us where we need to be.”
Homelessness is also more familiar in Southern Oregon after wildfires in 2020 destroyed whole communities, most of whom were not previously on the verge of living on the street.
Still, this growth of shelters isn’t enough to house everyone. There were 727 people experiencing homelessness in Jackson County, according to counts in 2020. At least one unhoused person in Jackson County already died this winter in what initial reports cite as exposure to the elements.
According to OHRA and Rogue Retreat, their facilities are generally full even with their newly expanded space.
Business challenges have also emerged with the rapid growth of the past year. Sinclair says state funding increased OHRA’s budget from less than $250,000 per year to $2.6 million annually. OHRA now has to raise significantly more money to keep its programs going.
“Everybody is looking for more operational dollars because they received the capital dollars to purchase, but not the operating dollars,” she said.
Likewise, McComas with Rogue Retreat says after they purchased a hotel through Project Turnkey, they were surprised by the current cost of materials to remodel it.
Southern Oregon’s extremely tight housing market and lack of affordable housing are huge barriers. But Lisa Smith with OHRA, says this year’s investments and the support services that come with them are an important step forward for the organization, as well as the shelter’s current roster of 42 guests, and their accompanying ten dogs and one cat.
“We’ve always had a shelter, but it was at a church every year,” Smith said. “And so now we have a home base. And we can offer those services year-round, which is amazing because the people come in and they’re doing so well here.”