LA GRANDE — The Union County Warming Station, after a one-year hiatus, is set to open soon in its new home on Third Street in La Grande.

The shelter’s board completed all renovations needed to bring the warming station, now in Suite B of a business building at 2008 Third Street, up to code, said Audrey Smith, chair of the board.

“We may be able to open as early as Nov. 15,” Smith said.

The community will get a chance to see the warming station’s new home, prior to the start of its operation, at an open house Friday, Nov. 13, from 4:30-6:30 p.m.

Before the warming station can open its doors to those in need of a warm place to sleep, the city of La Grande needs to grant an occupancy permit and the La Grande Fire Department must determine what the facility’s capacity will be. Smith estimates this will be about 20 guests as long as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and believes the capacity will rise after it ends.

Smith said the warming station again will fill an important humanitarian need.

“Nobody should have to sleep outside in the winter,” she said.

Smith said homeless people she has spoken to all say spending nights outside is stressful.

“They have told me they get terrible sleep. They are always worried about the police asking them questions or being robbed,” she said.

The result is homeless people often are perpetually tired, preventing them from being able to work on turning their lives around.

“It is hard to work on goals when you can’t sleep and are constantly just trying to survive,” Smith said.

Those attending the Friday open house can learn about the many steps to protect guests and staff from COVID-19. Social distancing rules and plastic dividers will be in place, everyone will be required to wear masks and extensive sanitizing work will be done. In addition, all guests and volunteers will be screened regularly, a process that will include temperature checks. Any guests who appear to be ill will be provided with alternative accommodations.

“Nobody will be turned away,” Smith said.

People attending will have the opportunity not only to see the expanded space and facilities at the shelter but also get information on how they can receive training to serve as volunteers there. Smith said there is a great need for volunteers at the shelter and all help is welcome and will make a significant impact.

“If someone volunteers to work just one or two times a month, it will make a big difference,” Smith said.

Information about volunteering also is available on the Union County Warming Station’s Facebook page. The exact hours the warming station will operate have not yet been determined, but Smith said the overnight shelter likely will open around 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. and close between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m.

Guests at the warming station will have access to computers to assist them with job searches and getting identification cards, which can help them land employment. Smith said the station’s staff is in a good position to help their guests get moving in the right direction because they see them so often.

“We develop good relationships with our clients. We work with them and help them accomplish their goals,” Smith said.

The warming station’s new home is its third in four winter seasons in La Grande. The station was first at the Zion Lutheran Church in 2017-18 and in a Willow Street building in 2018-19. The warming station did not operate in 2019-20 because of issues related to the move to its Third Street location.

The La Grande Planning Commission in October 2019 granted a conditional use permit for the shelter, but La Grande developer Al Adelsberger appealed that decision based on the shelter’s location near downtown. The city council in December denied Adelsberger’s appeal.

The Union County Warming Station’s new site will offer much more space than it had at its previous locations. This will allow it to provide feature such as separate rooms for families.

Renovations at the warming station to bring it in compliance with city of La Grande codes include the installation of a firewall separating Suite B from Suite A and a sprinkler system for fire suppression.

Accessibility also was a major part of the renovation project. The warming station’s restroom now meets Americans with Disabilities Act standards and expanding portions of the shelter made the facility wheelchair accessible.

Warming station guests not only will receive a place to sleep but also warm meals, coffee and hot chocolate. Boyd said coffee and hot chocolate often are the first items guests want after being out in the cold all day.

Smith said she does not believe the warming station is drawing more homeless to Union County, which is an assertion some locals make. Smith has worked with the homeless in Union County for six years and said it was a problem before the warming station opened, but people did not see it.

“In rural communities the homeless tend to be invisible. Folks tend to hide, they sleep in the forest or in an RV with no heat,” Smith said. “Just because you cannot see them everywhere does not mean it is not an issue.”

General assignment reporter

Beats include the communities of North Powder, Imbler, Island City and Union, education, Union County veterans programs and local history. Dick joined The Observer in 1983, first working as a sports and outdoors reporter.

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