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One of La Grande's homeless walks Saturday though downtown on Adams Avenue. The La Grande City Council meets Wednesday night to consider a land use appeal that prevented the opening of the local warming station, which provides shelter for the homeless during winter months.

LA GRANDE — His chapped and reddened hands trembled as he grasped the soiled cans and bottles and stuffed them one by one into the recycling machine at the La Grande Safeway.

He is 27, he said, from La Grande, went to high school here but did not make it past his junior year. He is one of La Grande’s homeless.

“Basically, I ended up making some bad financial choices when I was working, and I’ve been paying for it ever since,” he said.

He talked Wednesday night on condition of anonymity. Even a photo of his hands would be too much, he said.

Last winter he holed up in a friend’s garage, he said. Three walls and roof provided warmth and safety. But he no longer has that spot. This year he and many others, he said, were waiting for the Union County Warming Station to open.

“I was honestly planning on it,” he said. “To hear it was delayed due to being appealed — I’m very disappointed.”

Community pours out support for station

The station’s board on Oct. 8 received approval from the La Grande Planning Commission to operate at 2008 Third St. Ten days later, La Grande businessman Al Adelsberger appealed the decision with the support of several locals. Thursday, he said the shelter comes with the highest of stakes.

“When you do something, you got to do it right,” he said. “And human life is a very important issue.”

The La Grande City Council takes up the appeal at a public hearing Wednesday at 6 p.m. at La Grande Middle School, 1108 Fourth St.

Cody Vela is hopeful the council denies the appeal. The chair of the warming station board, he said the need is evident and the community agrees. The city received three letters asking the council to side with Adelsberger in the wake of his appeal. But approximately 60 letters and emails, primarily from locals, came in urging the council to deny the appeal and allow the shelter to open.

“We really felt a positive showing from the community,” Vela said.

Bruce Rogers, owner of Local Harvest Eatery and Pub, La Grande, in a Nov. 13 email to the city stated the shelter last year was 50 feet from his business and that prompted initial concerns about the safety of employees and clientele.

“We had absolutely zero incidents with this program,” he wrote. “The staff and volunteers operated this facility with the utmost professionalism and concern.”

Rachel Edvalson, owner of River Wynn Photography, La Grande, in a Nov. 14 email to the city stated, “A community that takes care of its vulnerable is a community that I would be proud to call my home for many years to come.”

The permit application to operate the shelter, the appeal and the letters are available online here: www.cityoflagrande.org/muraProjects/muraLAG/lagcity/index.cfm/city-offices/community-development/planning-division/union-county-warming-station-appeal/.

Pendleton shelter serves as example

Some of what is playing out in La Grande has a precursor in Pendleton, where the nonprofit Neighbor 2 Neighbor has operated the Pendleton Warming Station since 2011. The station hit speed bumps, but it also helped kickstart the lives of the less fortunate, protected homeless from the cold and avoided major pitfalls, said Dwight Johnson, the executive director of Neighbor 2 Neighbor.

Johnson spoke with pride about a man who landed a job interview while staying at the shelter in 2012. The man was disheveled and had nothing appropriate to wear. The warming shelter’s leaders stepped forward.

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Someone left behind these belongings Sunday morning in Max Square in downtown La Grande, a popular spot for the homeless.

“We paid for a pair of slacks, a haircut and new shoes,” Johnson said.

The improved look helped at the interview.

“He still has the job today,” Johnson said.

The Pendleton shelter is in its second home after initially opening near a grade school. Johnson, a part-time sergeant with the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office, said neighbors and parents of schoolchildren expressed concerns that homeless people might pose a threat and create messes in the area. The warming station personnel met with neighbors and addressed concerns, such as prohibiting loitering around the shelter until 15 minutes before opening and banning registered sex offenders. The warming station repeated the outreach when it moved to its second home in 2015.

Johnson is one of two law enforcement officers serving on the station’s board. He said having two people with police backgrounds is a plus because they are better able to detect and address potential problems.

The shelter operates with volunteers and opens only when the combination of temperatures, wind, rain and snow puts people outside at risk of freezing. Guests check in from 6:30-9 p.m., lights out is at 10 at night, and the wake-up call comes at 5 a.m. Everyone must be out an hour later.

The shelter has about six minor incidents a year, Johnson said, ranging from arguments to guests who refuse to leave. The worst incident occurred outside the building when one guest knocked another to the ground. No one was hurt, but the skirmish resulted in police arresting one man for harassment.

Johnson said guests are generally well behaved and obey the shelter’s rules. He said breaking the rules is grounds for expulsion, and “there is peer pressure” to toe the line.

The Pendleton shelter bans alcohol and drugs, but volunteers don’t check to see if guests are under the influence. Johnson said he does not want the staff to have to learn how to do this. And rejecting those with drugs and alcohol in their systems would be contradictory to the shelter’s mission of protecting people from the cold.

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Sunday morning reveals more signs of homelessness in Max Square in downtown La Grande. One man who is homeless told The Observer he stays at the nights at the square but would rather be inside the Union County Warming Station. The local shelter, however, remains closed pending the outcome of a land use appeal. The La Grande City Council takes up that matter Wednesday night.

The shelter’s staff also does not check to see if guests have warrants. Johnson said this would be a time-consuming and impractical process. He said law enforcement officers are welcome to come to the shelter, especially if they suspect someone of having a warrant. He said there have been several such arrests at the shelter.

The Pendleton shelter can host 28 guests and last winter often was filled to capacity and sometimes beyond. Johnson said the shelter had as many as 34 people on some nights, a far from ideal situation.

“We had people sleeping on the floor,” he said.

That crowding carries a greater potential for incidents. This season, the shelter has a strict limit of 28 per night unless there are extreme weather situations.

All of those using the Pendleton warming station must be at least 18 years old. Families with children receive motel vouchers.

“We do not feel it is a healthy place for children,” Johnson said of the shelter. “We do not want to put them in that environment.”

Safety and families are top priorities

Vela said the same peer pressure dynamic for following the rules occurred at the La Grande shelter. And he and other board members met with La Grande Police Chief Brian Harvey to go over concerns.

Harvey described those conversations as productive. He said he generally made suggestions on how the Union County Warming Station could improve policies and procedures. For example, he said, the shelter was tight-lipped about revealing anything about guests. Even if volunteers overheard guests talk about a robbery or sex crime, the chief said, polices prevented them from bringing that forward.

“Basically, I made it real clear not to run the shelter in a way that it becomes a sanctuary for a criminal element,” he said. “They need policies to have leeway to keep the shelter and community safe. If there’s some reason that brought us to come there, we want them to be free to talk about that.”

Harvey emphasized the La Grande Police Department is not weighing in on how the council should vote on the appeal. He also said he would like to see the community organizations dealing with homelessness come together for a more comprehensive solution.

While the Pendleton facility does not allow children, the La Grande shelter admits families with children. Audrey Smith, a member of the Union County Warming Station Board, explained the Third Street building has rooms individual families can stay in.

“We like to keep families together,” she said.

Smith noted all of the school-age children who stayed at the station in 2018-19 were able to attend classes after spending a night at the shelter. If not for the shelter, she said, the children probably would have missed school because they would not have eaten a nutritious meal, had a good night’s sleep and been able to clean up.

Smith said the Union County program provides adults with help to get them back on their feet, and the station recently won a grant for two counselors to work with guests to that end.

Volunteers at the Pendleton Warming Station also strive to help their guests get their lives on the right track. They not only prepare them for job interviews but help them obtain birth certificates and other documentation to apply for jobs. But Johnson said this is not the most critical objective.

“Our mission is to keep them from freezing to death,” he said.

The Union County station was open each night during its first two seasons and would continue that plan if it is able to open at the Third Street location. Smith said being open every night provides a sense of stability to guests, which allows them to seek services and search for jobs.

“It is hard to plan for the future when you are always in survival mode,” she said.

Homeless are locals

Vela said the majority of the people who have been guests at the Union County Warming Station have ties to the area. The same is true of the Pendleton warming station. Johnson said most guests indicate they used to live in Pendleton or have relatives there.

“Nobody has admitted that they came (to town) because of the shelter,” he said.

The people with no Pendleton connections often are transients on their way to another city and rarely stay long.

“They usually move on after about two weeks,” Johnson said.

Whatever the La Grande City Council decides on the permit at the Wednesday night hearing, warming station supporters or detractors have 21 days to appeal to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals.

Adelsberger said he has not decided if he would take that route. Since filing the appeal, he said, there has been a “lot of talk and things happening” regarding the warming station. He said the key is to figure out the right solution and operate the shelter in the best way possible.

Vela said the Union County Warming Station Board is ready to do whatever it takes to open the shelter, but the appeals process makes pinning down that date difficult. If the 21-day window closes without opposition, Vela said the work begins on getting the place ready, but that would be after Christmas, and contractors have not been willing to even give cost estimates because of the uncertainty caused by the appeal.

“As soon as we can, our doors will be open,” he said.

Another night in the cold

That Wednesday night at the recycling center, the homeless man hauled a large canvas backpack containing a warm sleeping bag and a laptop computer. He also owns a tarp, he said, but tends to stash that where no one would look. He said he carries the mass of belongings everywhere he goes to protect them from theft.

He said he uses public internet connections to communicate with friends and family via social media, and he watches YouTube before settling in at night among the bushes at downtown’s Max Square.

When he wakes, he said, he will go looking for more cans and bottles to turn into money so he can buy a little food. He said he will repeat the hunt in the afternoon, eat again, and get ready for another cold night under his tarp, just a couple blocks away from the empty building awaiting the warming shelter.

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