Warming through Winter – Providing cold weather shelter for the unhoused

Published On May 22, 2017 | By Sarah Hovet |

Words by Sarah Hovet, Photos by Kendra Siebert

 

December storms hit Eugene with power outages, sleet, and ice-encrusted trees like bending popsicles. This cold has severe consequences for the unhoused. Egan Warming Center mitigates those consequences by providing sleeping spaces and meals on cold nights for free, fueled by donations and volunteers.

The center includes nine emergency activation sites in Eugene and Springfield. Between November 15 and March 31, the sites open when the temperature drops below 30 degrees fahrenheit. The center is named after Thomas Egan, a veteran and unhoused man who died on the street in 2008. In the 2016 to 2017 season, the center has seen an unprecedented 25 activations.

Director Shelley Corteville prepares for the night ahead, giving directions to other volunteers in the parking lot outside of Eugene’s First Christian Church on Friday night, Feb. 24th.

Director Shelley Corteville calls the unhoused “our neighbors without addresses.” When they stay at the center, she calls them guests. This center’s lifeblood comes from the effort of Egan employees like Corteville, community partners like Food For Lane County and Cahoots, and hundreds of volunteers. When the center activates, it’s often for several nights at a time, and up to 300 volunteers can be required each night if all sites activate.

Corteville has served as director of Egan Warming Center for two years. At 28, while in Nevada, she spent six months homeless. Working two jobs, she managed to get off the streets, but did not forget the experience. She moved to Oregon and enrolled in Lane Community College. She took internship classes, through which she began volunteering for Egan. She loved it and advanced to site lead, volunteering for five years before she was offered the director position in 2015. “I was shocked when they offered me the director position,” she says. “It’s an honor.”

“When you volunteer with Egan Warming Center, you better be able to do just about everything that needs to be done,” says Made Marcoe, who has been a volunteer since 2008. In 2005, Marcoe moved to Eugene from Bali, where he was a painter. He lined up a Eugene job that fell through and spent three weeks living by the Willamette River. As he began a telemarketing job, he also volunteered as a dishwasher at Food For Lane County. For seven years, he worked there as the safety and hospitality director.

“Egan saves lives. We can do things like give new socks. We see early medical problems. It’s a multi-faceted program.”

Marcoe knew Thomas Egan from Food For Lane County. “I can look over my garden wall and see the spot where he passed away,” he says. “It’s a constant reminder in my life.”

Egan opened again on Friday, February 24. The days leading up to the activation found Corteville continuously opening her laptop to check the temperature. On Friday around 6 p.m. at the First Christian Church site, she recited the night’s predicted low from memory: 26.5 degrees.

In the basement, volunteers bustle to set up the space. The kitchen simmers with the smell of coffee and bacon. Corteville reminds the staff that they can only legally serve guests decaf.  

Volunteer Chai West piles pineapple and cantaloupe into a bowl. She first heard of the Egan Warming Center in 2008 when she was homeless and in the emergency room with pneumonia. The staff referred her and her now-husband to the youth site, and they walked down Monroe Street from the hospital in the snow to find warm beds. Later, a volunteer who she refers to as Big John encouraged her to volunteer too. Five years later, she is now kitchen lead.

Volunteers not only provide shelter to the unhoused, but also give medical assistance, hand out supplies and prepare balanced meals. The kitchen and sleep-area are separated by a single wall, while mats and blankets crowd the surrounding space.

Outside, shuttles hum into the parking lot, carrying guests from other parts of Eugene. First Christian is crowded. Although Egan has nine sites, one church basement is flooded and another occupied for a memorial service. The guests wait, some on scooters or in wheelchairs, some sipping coffee, their breath creating white plumes in the air. Church bells chime the progress toward opening the doors.

The first guest to enter when the site opens at 8 p.m. is a regular, a woman with a wheelchair who has a special cot. The smell of hand sanitizer suffuses the air as the volunteers wait to check in guests.

Guests check in items such as a purple umbrella and a Beavers blanket. Two female guests cross paths after checking in and call out, “Hi, hun!” Some guests exchange high-fives with volunteers as they check in; one tucks her crossword puzzle book under her arm.

In the sleeping area, some guests immediately crawl under the donated Egan blankets. One man lying on his mattress undoes his leg brace. Musical notes rise from a piano; one of the guests is playing.

On the other side of the basement, kennels are set up for pets. In the past, the center has offered shelter to a rabbit, a bird, and a snake among the more common cats and dogs.

Corteville reminds community members that the center always needs more volunteers and that there’s plenty to do in the off-season. The Egan needs more sites in downtown Eugene and Springfield. Fundraising and community efforts in the off-season can help secure these needs, she explains.
“Egan saves lives. We can do things like give new socks. We see early medical problems. It’s a multi-faceted program,” Marcoe says. During some activations this year, the total guest count approached 500, and only eight sites were open on those nights. Eight years after Tom Egan’s death, there is still work to do.

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