Monday, November 30, 2015

MWVCAA's Cold Weather Shelter 2015-2016‏‏

Revised: December 2018


By Sarah Owens and Michael Livingston

This past week -- the week of Thanksgiving 2015, the week of feel-good media stories about feeding turkey to the homeless -- nighttime temperatures began dropping into the 20s and overnight cold weather shelters elsewhere in the valley began opening, but not in Salem.  Commentary appeared in social media asking why the shelter was not open, blaming the City, the local Community Action Agency and heartless volunteers for what was assumed to be a poor decision.  Was it?  Or, as with almost every situation involving social services, was it tough decision based on available resources? Reasonable people may disagree.  Here are some factors to consider.  (Thanks to members of the Salem Homeless Coalition for information about the recent history of Salem’s cold weather shelter.)

The basic purpose of an overnight cold weather shelter is to allow people who need it a place to sleep without the danger of freezing to death.  It is considered emergency housing.  (Housing is generally considered to be emergency, transitional, or permanent; only housing designated “emergency” is relevant to this discussion.)

Emergency housing in Salem is limited.  Currently (winter 2015-16), men in Salem can find overnight cold weather shelter at the UGM’s Men’s Shelter on Commercial Street.  As may be needed in cold weather, UGM Men’s Shelter expands its capacity and waives its sobriety requirement.  Conditions there are very cramped in cold weather.  There is overnight shelter in Keizer for women and children at the UGM’s Simonka Place, about 115 beds.  Though capacity expands somewhat in cold weather, it is limited.  There is limited overnight shelter for youth at H.O.S.T. on Liberty Street.  There is no overnight shelter for families.

Before 2010, or thereabouts, Salem's emergency "overflow" warming centers were run by a local chapter of the American Red Cross.  But, the chapter closed or moved to Portland.  So, in the fall of 2014, a few members of a few downtown churches began forming the Salem Homeless Coalition, in part to organize an emergency warming center for families.  Mid Willamette Valley Community Action Agency (MWVCAA) quickly took the project over, providing paid staff and training volunteers.  However, for reasons that are not entirely understood, the families-only limitation was not enforced.  Although arrangements had been made for a Northwest Human Services van to transport single men to the UGM Men’s Shelter, reportedly some volunteers were either unwilling or unable to turn them away, creating a perceived or real security concern for families, with or without minor children.  With few or no families seeking entry, the decision was made to drop the families-only limitation.  That winter (2014-15), MWVCAA hosted the season’s first shelter, and First Congregational UCC (FCUCC) on Marion Street between Winter and Cottage, hosted the second, supported by more than 100 trained volunteers.  Since then, entry has been limited to those 18 and older.           

At an organizing meeting held September 30, 2015, FCUCC and First Presbyterian agreed to host a shelter and MWVCAA offered to coordinate.  MWVCAA set the criteria for opening and would determine whether they had been met.  The criteria included the prediction of a cold spell more or less defined as 31 degrees Fahrenheit or below for at least three days in a row, and the availability of 10 trained volunteers per shift for as long as the cold spell is predicted to last.  A volunteer-training was scheduled for November 3rd, but only 35 volunteers attended.  

Then came Thanksgiving week and nighttime temperatures in the 20s.  First Presbyterian Church was prepared to open a shelter that week, but MWVCAA, after consultation with other providers in the area, decided not to open, causing, as noted above, consternation in parts of the community.

UPDATE 12/10/15: The committee that set up the MWVCAA-coordinated shelter three years ago reportedly adopted as its own a manual of the Portland Chapter of the American Red Cross for operating an emergency warming center.  MWVCAA Deputy Director Cyndi Astley maintains that manual was the source of the initial 27ᵒ for 72 consecutive hours prediction criterion (later changed to a prediction of 31ᵒ for 72 hours as explained in this interview).

UPDATE 12/30/15: MWVCAA announced a two-day warming center "event" was "activated" for 12/31 and 1/1 at FCUCC, as temperatures were "expected to fall well below freezing."   Volunteers were invited to sign up for shifts after reading the warming center manual. 

UPDATE 1/4/16: The warming center "event" was extended through January 3, for a total of four nights.  Here's what is known about how things went, based general observations, information available, and interviews with providers and volunteers. 

  1. Each night, between 8 pm and 6:30 am, the center warmed between 50 and 60 guests, about 10 of whom were women.
  2. No one was turned away due to lack of room. 
  3. At some point, UGM Simonka Place stopped acting as a warming center and had to turn women away.
  4. At no point during the period was UGM Men's shelter full.  
  5. All the workers were volunteers (no staff, except at the opening and closing).
  6. Every shift had at least one experienced volunteer, designated as a "lead."
  7. Guests were expected to abide by two printed pages of rules, which the volunteers were supposed to explain and enforce to the letter, which led to tensions.
  8. The rule against serving food cause particular tension that is unresolved.
  9. Tension also exists as to the warming center's purpose: is it to offer no more than is necessary to prevent death and injury from exposure, or should it be more of a welcoming experience?  
  10. There appears to be no mechanism for debriefing the volunteers' experience and perceptions, making continued tensions likely.
  11. The Mayor and Justice Peterson served the last shift Monday morning.  No other elected officials were observed participating.

Guests Departing at 6:30 am Jan 3 2016

UPDATE 2/2/16: At the Salem Homeless Coalition meeting on February 1, MWVCAA Deputy Director Cyndi Astley gave a report on the warming center experience that consisted entirely of numbers and thank yous.  Unique individuals: 121.  Dogs: 3.  Stayed 1 night: 62.  Stayed all 4 nights: 17.  Total visits: 229.  Couples: "several."  Total volunteers: 80.  Shifts filled: 120.  Police calls: 0.  Cabs to Hospital: "a couple."  Thanks to all the volunteers and First Congregational Church. 

UPDATE 12/10/16: MWVCAA Deputy Director Cyndi Leinassar (fka Astley) policy statements were called into question in a Statesman Journal article by Carol Currie.  To read more about MWVCAA's 2016-2017 cold weather shelters, see "MWVCAA's Cold Weather Shelter 2016-2017", here

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Minutes 11/17/15

November 17, 2015

David Dahle, Chair
Woody Dukes
Brock Campbell
Michael Livingston,
Vice Chair
Bob Hanna
Diana Dettwyler
Erma Hoffman, Treasurer
Bruce Hoffman
Neal Kern
Sarah Owens, Sec’y
Rebekah Engle

p=present a=absent e=excused

Residents: Bill Holmstrom, Rick Yurt
Organizations: Maurice Anderson, First Congregational UCC and Salem Homeless Coalition; Simon Sandusky, Guest Services Manager, Union Gospel Mission, A.P. Walther, Salem Weekly, Verena Wessel, Northwest Human Services
City/County Representatives: Councilor Bennett, Officer Vanmeter; Gina Courson, Marion County Parole & Probation
Guests: Jeremy Mills, NEN; Cyndi Astley, Deputy Director, MWVCAA; Brent Demoe, Manager, Polk County Family and Community Outreach

The regular meeting of the CanDo Board of Directors was called to order at 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday, November 17, 2015, at the First Christian Church at 685 Marion Street NE, Salem. Michael Livingston was in the chair and Sarah Owens acted as secretary.

The agenda and the minutes of the October meeting were approved unanimously.

Deputy Courson reported the latest MCRI statistics and answered questions.

Councilor Bennett made announcements and stated that the City needed “to continue to work with the affordable housing issue”, saying that, in the 1970s, the City had a “very aggressive housing policy because the feds [at that time] had a very aggressive housing policy”, but not since then had either the City or the feds addressed the problem  adequately.  He said private developers were “few and far between for cities the size of Salem” and that the City would be considering the Salem Housing Authority’s proposal to  build affordable housing on part of the State Hospital’s North Campus.

Officer Vanmeter reported that SPD makes 5-6 drug/alcohol-related arrests per day under the Center St. Bridge near UGM.  As a consequence, Public Works Director Peter Fernandez and SPD had agreed it would be preferable to prevent the need for arrests at this location by better "environmental design", i.e., by fencing off the area under the bridge.  Both Public Works and SPD recognize that this course will merely send the problem behavior elsewhere.  No timeline was given, but it seemed from what was said that action was likely to be taken within the next 60 days.  

The board heard a presentation from Brent Demoe on developing the Dallas Academy Building model for co-locating social services for families in need, followed by a lively discussion on how it might be used to develop a similar resource center for homeless individuals living in downtown Salem.    

The Chair reminded everyone that the board had canceled the December meeting.

There being no other business before the board, the meeting of the Board of Directors adjourned at 7:02 p.m.