Monday, November 30, 2015

The MWVCAA-Coordinated Overnight Cold Weather Shelter in Salem - December 2015 Issues‏‏

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 either emergency, transitional, or permanent; only housing designated “emergency” is relevant to this discussion.)  

Emergency housing in Salem is limited.  Currently, 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.  Established service providers quickly stepped up and 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), the Mid Willamette Valley Community Action Agency (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.  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 1/4/15: 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
If you took part in this most recent warming center effort, we want to hear from you.  What did you think worked well, what do you think might have been done differently?  What questions would you like answered?  What would you like organizers to know about your experience? 

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.  Characteristically, there was no analysis; not one word, not one, about lessons learned, the number of male and female guests and what that implied about the needs of the community, or about the tension over the rules or how or whether any effort had been made to resolve them.    

12/10/16 Update: MWVCAA Deputy Director Cyndi Leinassar (fka Astley) policy statements questioned by Statesman Journal reporter Carol Currie.  For more, go here


  1. First off, I wanted to express my appreciation for all of the organizers, volunteers and church members. Thank you!!!

    I appreciated having designated areas downstairs for volunteers to keep watch (the chairs near the elevator hallway, the chair next to the restroom, the chairs by the back set of stairs). I also thought the vests were awesome.

    The guests really appreciated having clean dry socks/hats/gloves available. It would be wonderful if that could be expanded to basic clothing items. I'd be happy to organize soliciting, storing and transporting clothing donations if that is a possibility. There were guests who showed up completely soaked on Sunday night and it was very difficult for them to settle.

    I would ask that volunteers have a full understanding that their shift runs until the actual end time. Maybe they could be asked not to leave until they hand their vest to a volunteer for the next shift?

    In the future, I also hope that more emphasis could be placed on the fact that quiet time for guests is quiet time for volunteers as well. At times, volunteer chit chat was loud enough to be disruptive. Keeping discussions to only necessary information is something I have to work hard at as well.

    I had a few specific concerns around Sunday night. When I arrived for second shift, guests were sleeping near the back set of stairs, which had previously been kept clear in case of emergency. It was decided it would be too disruptive to wake them to move but looking back, that is what I should have done. We also didn't have walkie talkies and needed them.

    I understand why food is not served but noticed that some guests who were unable to settle quieted down a bit after some broth. I believe something simple like protein bars or apples would help guests rest easier. Falling asleep hungry is hard to do and tempers run higher when people haven't eaten. However, I wouldn't want to be responsible for serving or keeping heated/refrigerated food safe.

    I'm so grateful we have a community that can pull together to provide this service. The organizers, volunteers and church members were all amazing.

  2. Sorry - a few more quick thoughts.

    It would be great to have lists of community resources for guests available. There were a few guests who weren't aware of specific resources. I carry some with me to hand out and they seem to be appreciated.

    Also lists of ways volunteers can get more involved in our community to help those who are unhoused. There seems to be an understanding that there is a need but confusion on how to get connected.

    And last but not least, having basic hygiene kits available to guests might be helpful. I know there are already community members and groups who distribute them but there were a few guests who weren't aware or were unable to access community resources and requested basic hygiene items.

  3. For historical purposes, here's the information that was posted to the City's website:


    With temperatures expected to fall well below freezing, a Warming Center has been activated to begin at 8 p.m. on Thursday, December 31, through 6:30 a.m. on Saturday, January 2 (this may be extended depending on weather).

    LOCATION: First Congregational Church, 700 Marion Street NE, Salem OR 97301.

    If you would like to support this Warming Center as a volunteer, please sign-up online at:

    Other possible warming locations in Salem include (call ahead for information):

    Union Gospel Mission--Men's Shelter
    345 Commercial Street NE, Salem OR 97301. Phone: 503-362-3983.

    Meal: (For men and women. Children must be accompanied by an adult):
    * Breakfast: 6:30 a.m.; Sunday 7:30 a.m.
    * Lunch: 12:00 p.m.
    * Dinner: 5:30 p.m.

    Services: New Life Fellowship Program, Supportive Services, Transitions, showers for men only, foot clinic, barbershop, and shelter.

    Union Gospel Mission Simonka Place--Women's Shelter
    5119 River Road N, Keizer OR 97303. Phone 503-362-7487.
    Meals: (For women and children only)
    * Breakfast: 7 a.m.
    * Lunch: 12 p.m.
    * Dinner: 5 p.m.
    Services: New Life Fellowship Program, Supportive Services, Transitions, showers for women and children only. Shelter is provided.

    Salvation Army Shelter
    1901 Front Street NE, Salem OR. Phone: 503-585-6688.
    Shelter has limited availability (recommended to call beforehand).

    Services: Case management and shelter.

    Homeless Outreach and Advocacy Project (HOAP)
    694 Church Street NE Salem OR 97301. Phone: 503-588-5827.
    Daytime Warming Center, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday

    Services: Crisis intervention, case management, clothing, meals, laundry, and advocacy.

    1164 Madison Street NE, Salem OR 97301. Phone: 503-399-9080.

    Services: Day Center open 8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m., one meal served at 11:30 a.m., mailing address, pet food, and resources.

    The City of Salem has two warming locations:

    Center 50+, 2615 Portland Road NE, is open until 5 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday. Center 50+ will be closed Friday through Sunday this weekend. Phone: 503-588-6303

    Salem Public Library, 585 Liberty Street SE. The library is open until 9 p.m. Wednesday. It will be open from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Thursday December 31. The Library will be closed Friday, January 1. The library will be open at 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Phone: 503-588-6052.

    Most Salem area malls can be utilized as warming locations while open.