The winter of 2016 was particularly harsh in La Grande. While many were inconvenienced by the highway closures and impassable drifts, those without homes in Union County faced an even harsher reality. With no homeless shelters in Eastern Oregon and the closest warming station in Pendleton, cold weather presents a unique set of difficulties for the homeless.
That cold weather inspired a collection of Union County residents to organize a warming station in La Grande.
The Union County
Warming Station opened in February in temporary quarters. Now, the warming station has found a permanent home at 1609 N. Willow St., in a residence that was previously foreclosed upon. This season the warming station opened on Nov. 15 and will be open until March 15.
The warming station is open seven days a week, from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. The station stops accepting people after 10:30 p.m., which coincides with lights-out at the residence. The facility can house up to 16 people a night, while two to three volunteers split the night shift. Those who spent the night at the warming station must leave by 8 a.m., but there is no limit for how many nights they can stay. The station has a kitchen full of food that individuals are welcome to take, and they are also offered warm clothes and socks.
“We try to let them know there’s no shame in needing some new socks, having a chicken pot pie and making yourself at home a little bit,” Cami Miller, director of the Union County Warming Station, said.
Miller said they work with a number of organizations in the area, such as Northeast Oregon Network, Eastern Oregon University and Zion Lutheran Church. In addition to offering people a warm place to spend the night, the warming station also works with individuals to connect them with more services in the area.
“We’ll say, ‘Hey, do you need to go to Community Connections to talk to them about a program they have or vouchers or go to transit and get a bus pass for the month,’” Miller said. “People can get laundry vouchers. We just try to make our resources available and try to remove barriers.”
While Union County’s homeless population might not be as visible as in other parts of the state, such as Portland, Miller said per capita Union County’s homeless population is significant. The Oregon Health Authority estimated there were 43 homeless people in Union County in 2017, but 243 homeless K-12 students in the county.
“It’s just a little more secret,” Miller said of homelessness in Union County. “It’s like a fifth wheel (camper) in the backyard without water or heat or electricity or plumbing, instead of sitting in front of Powell’s (Bookstore in Portland). It looks different, but it’s very much (the same) thing.”
In 2017-18, 43 individuals made use of the Union County Warming Station a total of 263 times.
The warming station has a special room where families can stay. Last winter, Miller said, there was a mother with two children who stayed at the station for two weeks.
“I see her often, and her kids are doing sports and they have a dog,” Miller said.
One of the facts Miller said she is most proud of is that no individual who the station served last year is currently homeless.
Miller said the warming station has approximately 40 volunteers, but she is looking for more to pick up shifts. Eric Griffith, a board member for the warming station who also works at Northeast Oregon Network, said having more volunteers would help the organization disperse the workload.
“The more volunteers there are, the less demand there is for each volunteer,” Griffith said. “We could easily have 200 people putting in shifts, and that just means it’s going to be easier for everyone dedicating their time and resources to this.”
If you are interested in volunteering, the warming station’s next volunteer training begins at 10 a.m. Nov. 24 at the warming station. For more information on future volunteer trainings and other ways to support the warming station, you can visit them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/unioncountywarmingstation/ or on their website at https://www.ucwarmingstation.com/.