A group of people with good intentions want to help the homeless in La Grande stay warm this winter. They have everything in place except for one thing — a location.
Cami Miller has been working on setting up a warming station — a building that will give overnight shelter to the homeless — with the Union County Local Community Advisory Council, a group of local volunteers. After last year’s harsh winter, the group began working toward getting a warming station going this year. The trouble they have since run into is finding a place to house it.
“There are more than 50 volunteers helping in this project,” Miller said. “Everyone is on board. But we’re trying to find locations and there are zoning issues.”
The warming station has to be in a commercially zoned area, she said. The local churches have been contacted, but they either use their spaces at night or don’t have the OK from their insurance company. Miller said if the group doesn’t have a location by the middle of January it might be too late to set up the warming station this year and the group will have to focus on next winter.
Miller isn’t lacking in support. Businesses have agreed to collect warm clothing for the shelter and she’s gotten agreements for shower vouchers as well. And the volunteers are going through a training process in order to work at the warming station that includes how to de-escalate situations.
The La Grande Police Department is supportive of this endeavor, but LGPD Lt. Gary Bell said not all communities have had success with warming stations.
“We never want to turn our back on those in the cold, but we are concerned,” Bell said. “(Setting up a warming shelter) is an attempt to provide a solution, but it also comes with its own issues.”
Bell brought up a previous project in La Grande that had similar good intentions — Higher Grounds coffee shop. The shop, which was in business more than eight years ago, was intended to provide a refuge of sorts 24 hours a day to those undergoing treatment for drug and/or alcohol addiction. It provided a warm place to go for friendship, comfort and support in between treatments.
Bell said the intention was there, but police dealt with the negative ramifications of the situation — like people littering or being charged with disorderly conduct.
“We’re supportive of a warming shelter, but we want to make sure it’s in the right location,” Bell said.
And that’s the crux of the problem.
Miller said part of the difficulty with finding a location is the insurance coverage.
“It’s a catch-22,” she said. “We can’t really get insurance until we get a location, and locations are having problems getting approval from their insurance.”
Location, location, location
Pendleton has had a warming station since 2011. This is the station’s seventh winter season, and the shelter has gained credibility through the years.
Chris Clemons, executive director of Pendleton’s Neighbor 2 Neighbor warming station, said the shelter has been “growing and maturing.”
He said their initial location was in a city-owned building next to an elementary school.
That caused a lot of backlash, according to Pendleton Police Chief Stuart Roberts.
“It was the location and proximity to the elementary school,” Roberts said. “There was a lot of concern about the transient population being right there.”
The volunteers strove to avoid any conflicts, for instance, making sure the shelter’s hours didn’t coincide with the children getting out of school.
“There were questions about whether this was going to turn into more of a headache than its intended purpose,” Roberts said. “But we haven’t seen that come to light.”
Clemons said a lot of people in Pendleton were nervous and anxious about what a warming station would bring.
“We really had to push through that,” Clemons said. “We worked hard with our training, policies and procedures and learned how to operate safely. Our main mission is to get anybody without a home to spend the night. We want to provide a quiet, warm place for people to sleep.”
Roberts commended the volunteers at the shelter who have had a “laundry list” of rules since the warming station first opened. Alcohol is not permitted at the center, and guests are ousted if they consume it. Those who stay at the shelter know that the policy is upheld.
Roberts said, in the six years of operation, the police have maybe been called half a dozen times to the shelter.
Neighbor 2 Neighbor has since moved out of the city-owned building and away from the school. St. Anthony Hospital donated one of its unused buildings to the nonprofit organization, Clemons said. The process took a year and a half but now the shelter has a permanent location and is able to offer beds to the guests instead of the thick mats that they had before.
“We’re blessed to have that building,” Clemons said. “The space is more practical for us. The location is better.”
A shelter from the cold
Last year’s unusually harsh winter saw a serious uptick in the number of people using the shelter in Pendleton.
“We averaged 15 people a night,” Clemons said. “The previous winter we averaged seven. The most we had last year was 23 in one night.”
Clemons said the shelter operates between Nov. 15 and March 15 — and is open only when the temperature dips to a specific degree. Last year, the shelter was open 103 nights in a row.
He believes last year’s severe winter weather helped the shelter gain credibility.
“I won’t deny there are still a lot of folks who don’t like the idea of (a warming station),” Clemons said. “However, overall, the community support has totally flipped. It was last year that it really seemed to change. I think the brutal weather helped. We also have a good track record behind us. There haven’t been any issues with us. We have the full support of the police, the fire and the community businesses. They like what we’re doing, and they like how we’re doing it.”
The police chief said the general public doesn’t understand how big the homeless population is, or the challenge of dealing with the demographic.
“Some of them are homeless by choice, and some by consequence. They’re not going to go away,” he said.
LGPD’s Lt. Bell said the officers who patrol at night offer those on the streets in La Grande the resources available to them — including motel vouchers.
“We’ve received calls from concerned citizens who see people with carts (and are worried about their well-being) and rightly so,” Bell said. “The officers are on a first name basis with them. We offer existing resources to them but they are generally declined.”
He said some of the homeless are in that situation due to their mental health. Warming station volunteers may not have the resources to meet their needs.
“(A warming station) is a significant undertaking,” Bell said. “We’re supportive, but it’s not without concerns. Let’s make sure we learn from other communities. Think about how this may impact neighboring businesses.”
Bell is hopeful that having a local shelter that gives people a warm place to sleep in the winter months will provide one more resource for the officers to offer.
“We’re in the business of trying to help,” Bell said.
Challenges of starting up
“I truly believe a warming station is necessary, especially for our size of a city,” Clemons said about Neighbor 2 Neighbor. “The most important thing to provide is a place for them to come out of the weather. They’re safe and supervised.”
Clemons said making sure people know this is a wintertime emergency shelter and not a year-round shelter is key, which is what La Grande’s shelter will be, too.
Bell said he’s impressed with the dedication and effort of this project. He said the location of the shelter could play a large part in its eventual success.
For now, Miller is looking for a building that is commercially zoned with a bathroom. The warming station is ready to go but the project is stalled until it finds a home.
For more information, or to contact Miller about a location, call 541-910-0374.