Sunday, January 22, 2017

Out of the Cold

By Sarah Rohrs

Warming Center at 770 Commercial St
A warming center is, obviously, a place to get out of the cold and warm up. The very name conjures up something temporary, a place to take refuge for a bit before heading back out into the weather.

For more than one hundred homeless people in Salem, a warming center set up in the former Oregon Department of Energy was exactly that – a place to get out of the cold for a few hours.

It was certainly not ideal but it was better than nothing in the recent cold snap when temperatures plunged.

The primary purpose of warming centers is to prevent homeless people from freezing to death.  Last year the Community Action Agency activated the warming shelter only four nights. So far, this season the center has been activated 17 nights.

The decision to activate has something to do with where the mercury falls on the thermometer and for how long. But for anyone sleeping outside, I image that kind of criteria means nothing. If the temperature is just above or below freezing hardly matters.

Most of us could, conceivably, call our homes “warming centers.” After we’ve been outside running errands we can go inside and warm up. The big difference is that we have access to our homes 24/7 . We have hot water, food, a bed with plenty of blankets, plus our possessions under one roof. For the homeless their access to the warming center is restricted to nighttime hours only.

I contemplated all this and more when I volunteered for one four-hour shift at the Salem warming center. As a KMUZ Community Radio volunteer I had heard announcements about the center opening up in late December when the temperatures turned frigid. A fellow radio volunteer posted on Facebook that the centers could not operate without volunteers. Then I saw a notice on this blog about volunteers. I figured I could leave my home for a few hours to help out.

I picked a 7:30 to 11:30 p.m. shift rather than the 11:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. shift, or the 3:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. shift. I go to bed early. I have no idea how volunteers in the later shifts could stay away in the wee hours of the morning. When I arrived around 7:20pm, I saw a long line of people with their shopping carts, bicycles, pets and other belongings up against the building. It was already freezing outside but they had to wait until all the volunteers were ready inside.

So, I went inside and stood around feeling pretty stupid and useless until our shift’s crew leader, Pam, assembled us all together, showed us around and told us how things operated. She told us that each guest got a number and a bracelet like the kind you get at the hospital. They had to leave their shopping carts and other large items outside, and then got a large plastic bag with a blanket in it to use when they went to sleep. I looked around a large room and saw thin, narrow mats like yoga mats lined up in long rows.


I got assigned to the hot beverage area, a long table with large containers of hot decaf coffee, and hot water for tea and bullion. Two of us in that area also had to clean off tables where people ate, and also straighten out piles of donated jeans, sweaters, coats, gloves and hats. It was easy. Other volunteers had to keep the bathrooms cleaned, check people in and monitor the crowd outside.

Pam had told us about guests with incontinence problems and said adult diapers would be available. One man named Dave clearly had this problem. Both his pant legs were deeply soiled. We had been told to offer to help such people like Dave, coax them to take a shower and put on clean clothes. But I was afraid when I saw him and didn’t do anything.

Other guests finally complained about him smelling so bad. Pam asked a couple of men to help her convince Dave to get cleaned up but they declined. I saw her walk over to where he was laying on a mat but he was apparently asleep and she left him alone.

As people checked in and got their blankets, the room quickly filled up with people claiming their mats on the linoleum floor. Some of the people clearly suffered from mental disorders of various kinds and degrees, such as paranoia and schizophrenia. Some paced around the tables while others sat and laughed and talked to themselves. One man believed he was the owner of the Raiders and spent hours trying to corral garbage bins and other items into one area of the room for the football team. He yelled at me when I told him he couldn’t take an entire box of knitted hats away from the clothing area. To distract him I offered him a pair of clean socks I found and he sat down on the floor to put them on. Then I saw he had a flexible cast on one leg which he laboriously unwrapped and then wrapped up again. When not on his crusade to keep things safe for the Raiders he was quite pleasant and coherent.

Warming Center at frmr DOE Building

As I tried to stay busy, I remembered a recording a fellow KMUZ volunteer made of a woman at the Polk County Connect saying that she had been afraid of homeless people but then came to realize they were just people like everyone else. I kept those words in mind as I talked to guests. I offered to help them find pants in their sizes, or talked with one man about dry skin after he showed me the deep cracks in his chapped fingers. I accompanied one lady to the bathroom because she was afraid someone was hurt inside.

At one table, a group of Latino men laughed and talked. It was nice to see the warming center a spot for laughter and socializing. Someone had given them a cake at “the bridge” which I assumed to mean the Marion Street Bridge, and they seemed to be enjoying themselves as they talked and passed out slices of cake. I assured them I’d clean up after them which I gladly did. At another table, a young couple sat close to one another sharing a container of Ramen noodles they had heated up with the hot water. They huddled together at the table with their hoods and jackets tightly cinched and closed. They looked cold, and tired to the bone. After they ate their meager dinner, they kissed briefly and that kiss seemed more sad than sweet.

At 10 p.m., the lights dimmed. Most of the guests were already settled on their mats, some even in some semblance of night clothes. I watched one woman writing in her journal and her male companion reading a book. Some guests snored and others fidgeted and complained about their neighbors.

Center volunteers continuously walked up and down the lines of mats, often settling minor disputes and asking people to quiet down. Around the front door, some guests had a last smoke before trying to get to sleep and others kept going outside, worried about their shopping carts.

I was grateful when my shift was over but felt vaguely guilty as I got into a car, blasted the heat and then drove to my “warming center,” a home I found conspicuously well heated when I got inside. Other than keep sugar bowls full and tables clean I felt I did very little to help the guests out in any meaningful way. I was grateful they were able to get out of the cold, and grateful for the more experienced social workers in the room who were able to work with them on a more one-on-one basis.

I certainly had no say, nor input into the welcoming center, nor did I do anything to help get it started, staffed or stocked with a myriad number of donated items. Still, I was a bit sad at the narrow, thin mats the guests slept on, and how close those mats were placed together. It seemed heartless that the guests would be back out into the cold in the morning. It took the city of Salem and social service organizations weeks to get this temporary facility open and running. I’m glad it was available, but it’s hardly any kind of solution to the large number of homeless people outside in the winter. What will it take for something more permanent or at least more comfortable?

--Sarah Rohrs

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