People in search of a sanctuary from cold winter nights in La Grande now need to look no further than the Zion Lutheran Church.

The Neighbors Together of Union County Warming Station is now operating in the meeting hall of Zion Lutheran Church, 902 Fourth St. The warming station has served between one and four people a night. To date the operation of the shelter, which opened Feb. 1 and has the capacity to serve at least 20 people a night, has gone smoothly.

“It has been a great experience so far. This is super exciting,” said Cami Miller, volunteer manager of the warming station.

Miller has been moved by how gracious people staying at the shelter have been. Case in point: three men who experienced car trouble while traveling through La Grande en route to another area where they had jobs lined up stayed at the new warming station Sunday night and Monday morning. On Monday evening, they walked about two miles from the Greyhound Bus station on East Penn Avenue where they had purchased tickets to the warming shelter to thank the staff.

“I will never forget what they did,” Miller said.

The warming station operates nightly from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. It will remain open through March 31 and then reopen on Nov. 15 for the 2018-19 season.

The shelter provides visitors with all they need for a comfortable night including mattresses, blankets and food. All items were donated by community members and groups.

“The community has done a wonderful job of stepping up,” Miller said.

Miller met with experienced leaders of warming shelters in Hermiston and Hood River before developing plans for the La Grande warming station. She wanted to get advice and insight from them because of their experience. Hermiston’s warming shelter has operated for seven years and the Hood River one for almost as long.

“I wanted to learn about their procedures and policies,” Miller said.

She learned of the importance of having a quality staff. This inspired her to make sure that all volunteers at the warming shelter have the appropriate background checks and training. As a result, the volunteers have been receiving instruction on mental health de-escalation.

“They learn how to calm down people who are agitated or upset,” Miller said.

The new warming shelter has 42 volunteers now and more are being trained. The next training session will be conducted at 7 p.m. Feb. 8 at the Northeast Oregon Public Transit building,2204 E. Penn Ave.

Miller said she has learned that a critical part of operating a warming shelter is to set boundaries that nobody is allowed to cross. For example, guests of the warming shelter are told they can not loiter outside the Zion Lutheran Church. If they do, they will lose the privilege of staying at the shelter.

Guests are also told they cannot be given rides by shelter volunteers.

“We tell them that we have liability insurance for our volunteers and guests but we do not have this coverage when we give a ride to a guest,” Miller said.

Two trained volunteers are always at the warming station when it is open, Miller said. This guarantees that at least one volunteer will always be up, since one can sleep while the other is working.

Those working as volunteers include Jill Boyd, who is also a member of the planning committee for the shelter. She has positive feelings about guests she’s met at the warming center and can sympathize with their plights.

“They are exhausted, hungry and just want a place to sleep. They are just people who are down and out,” Boyd said.

All guests are asked to clean up after themselves before leaving, and Miller said that all have been very diligent about doing this in the first week of the warming station’s operation.

She said some people in the community have expressed fear that the presence of a warming station would attract people who would be disruptive. Miller said she believes this concern may be unwarranted. She noted that operators of the warming shelter in Hermiston told her that the police have been called to the shelter just four times in the seven years it has been operating.

Miller noted that in the brief time the warming shelter has been open at Zion Lutheran Church, no problems regarding guests who break rules or misbehave have developed.

Lt. Gary Bell of the La Grande Police Department confirmed that no problems connected to the warming station guests have sprung up.

“We have not had any issues,” Bell said. “I have been very pleased so far. I hope that it can continue on a positive path.”

The food provided to guests at the warming station is primarily that of the prepackaged variety. The only food preparation items available at the shelter are a microwave oven and a water heater.

No extensive cooking is done by volunteers because this would add a level of complication to operation of the station.

“We don’t want our volunteers to have to get food handlers permits,” Miller said.

The warming shelter is based at Zion Lutheran Church because it stepped forward when Neighbors Together was having difficulty finding a site. The church is a sponsor of the Housing Collaborative, a community organization that meets regularly at Zion Lutheran Church to examine the homeless issue in Union County. The Housing Collaborative earlier recommended that a warming station be established after which the Zion Lutheran Church offered space.

Colleen Nelson, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church, is very pleased with how the new warming station is operating.

“We have had very positive feedback,” Nelson said.

Miller and Boyd said that the warming shelter may later be moved to a place such as Cove Avenue where it would be more centrally located and guests would have better access to a laundromat, stores and Greyhound’s bus depot.

Another goal is to make the Neighbors Together of Union County Warming Station a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Such status would mean that those donating to the warming shelter would receive a tax deduction.

“This would strengthen our donor base and make it more consistent,” Boyd said.

The presence of a warming station in La Grande may do more than provide those who are hurting with a good night’s sleep. It may also help them get back on their feet. Miller noted people who run warming shelters have told her that a number of their homeless guests turned their lives around, finding jobs and housing.

“People are better able to advocate for themselves when they have a warm place to sleep at night instead of being in the freezing cold,” she said.

Bell said it is wonderful now that local law enforcement officers have a place they can send people who have nowhere to go on a cold night.

“It is a nice option,” Bell said. “We needed a place where someone can stay night after night.”

Miller, according to Boyd, deserves an enormous amount of credit for the smooth start the warming shelter is getting off to.

“Cami is doing an amazing job of taking the lead in planning this,” said Boyd, explaining she has been adept at bringing community partners together.

Miller said she is thankful for the chance to be connected with the warming shelter.

“I have tears of gratitude every night for having the chance to help people in such an impactful way,” she said.