With temperatures dipping into the 30s and still no overnight shelters in place to keep the unhoused warm, homeless advocates took matters into their own hands this week.
At the Foursquare Gospel Center in Winston, senior pastor Jerry Smart offered up his space Tuesday night for people to come out of the cold. About a dozen did and six stayed overnight. They were served chicken pot pie, said Wayne Ellsworth, homeless outreach coordinator for South River Community Health Center and chair of the Homeless Transition Action Group.
Ellsworth helped pull together the shelter and was there much of the night, along with five volunteers from the Gospel Center. The space is big enough to hold about 25 people, Ellsworth said. The center will open when the weather dips to 30 degrees or below, or when it hits 32 degrees and there is snow — as long as they have enough volunteers and supplies, Ellsworth said.
“Unfortunately, volunteers and supplies are limited,” he said.
At Gaddis Park in Roseburg, Max Stafford went even further Tuesday night. He fastened commercial wrap around a section of the open-air pavilion in the park and brought in three propane heaters and 10 cots to create his own warming shelter.
About two dozen people took advantage of the impromptu shelter, and they were further warmed by the soup Stafford handed out. Stafford, who delivers food, drinks, clothing and other items to members of the homeless community several times a week through his Redemptive Ministries/Wheels of Hope, said word of the shelter spread quickly among the unhoused in the area.
“When you build a fire they come, and Gaddis already has solid traffic,” Stafford said. “It’s just where they’re at.”
However, the Gaddis shelter didn’t last long. Stafford got word Wednesday morning that the Roseburg Police Department and other officials were on their way to dismantle it. As Stafford arrived at the park he videotaped the shelter and talked about why it was necessary, then posted his comments on his Facebook page, which included passages of scripture interspersed with his own commentary.
“It’s makeshift, but it kept people warm last night, it kept people by a fire, it fed people, it gave them coffee, it gave them hope,” Stafford said on the video, the sound of wind whipping in the background.
Stafford also issued his own personal call to arms, asking for items to help the unhoused stay warm and safe, including sleeping bags, tents, blankets, propane heaters and cots. He needs people too, Stafford said.
“I need some bodies down here. I need some food down here at Gaddis park. I need the people that believe that the homeless need shelter today,” he said.
“Now this might not be the best choice, but it’s what we have right now,” he said. “Nobody has stepped up, not a church has stepped up. We are desperate to get these folks well. I want to see them well. I want to see our community have nobody sleeping on the riverbanks. I don’t want to see any more RVs all over our community. We can do this and we can do it much better than we’ve been doing it.”
Shortly before noon Wednesday, as Stafford stood on the edge of the Gaddis Park pavilion speaking with Roseburg Police Capt. Jeremy Sanders and officer Josh Chavez, Jason Doan began dismantling and moving propane tanks used to provide heat inside the pavilion. James Granquist and Amy Smith were also busy breaking down the makeshift warming center.
Doan began breaking down the commercial wrap surrounding the building as a woman, dressed in a maroon sweater and blue and white stocking cap, leaned against the side of a support pole.
Minutes later, a shriek interrupted the conversation between Stafford and Roseburg police officers. The same woman sat on the cement floor in apparent pain.
Sanders offered to summon an ambulance. Stafford said that would not be necessary.
Later, he walked over to her, kneeled down and put his arm around her. Minutes later, she was transferred to one of the cots provided for the shelter. As the woman lay there covered in blankets, Granquist walked over, sat carefully on the edge of her cot and put his arm out to comfort her.
Her knee was hurting her, Stafford said, but it was something more than physical pain.
“I think her emotions are hurting is what is really going on,” Stafford said. “I think she is traumatized about something that happened probably last night or today. I do know she came here because she felt safe.”
NO WARMING CENTERThis is the second winter in a row that the city has been without a cold-weather shelter.
The Roseburg Dream Center, which provides food, clothing and services to the homeless community, had been running a warming center for several years at its downtown Roseburg location. But in August 2020 the agency was forced to move from that location by the owners of the building.
The Dream Center found a new location east of downtown on Diamond Lake Boulevard, but the building doesn’t have the space to house a warming center, especially under requirements for COVID-19, agency officials said.
Last winter, the Roseburg City Council approved changes in regulations that were intended to make it easier for church groups to open their doors for a warming center. However, none did.
The City Council also tweaked regulations to make it easier to allow individuals to camp overnight in their vehicles in designated spots, overseen by a church or other organization, but again, not a single vehicle camping site has been opened.
This past January, the city formed a homeless commission to help work through some of these issues. The first task the commission took on was to figure out a way to open a warming center. However, the commission quickly changed course and instead decided to help homeless individuals survive the winter by providing tents, sleeping bags and other goods to help them shelter in place.
The commission also created an immediate needs ad hoc committee in June to provide such items to those who are homeless. However, that committee was disbanded the following month after city officials said its work overlapped with that of the Homeless Transition Action Group, or HTAG.
Ellsworth is the chair of HTAG. He said there are discussions underway with various groups expressing a possible interest in opening a cold-weather shelter, but nothing is concrete yet.
City of Roseburg spokesperson Suzanne Hurt said the city has also been trying to work with churches, social service agencies and the public at large in an effort to provide shelter for homeless individuals this winter.
Last month, city officials held a virtual meeting with a handful of church leaders — including Foursquare Gospel Center — and issued a plea to the general public seeking help in opening a warming center. Additionally, a letter was sent out to a broad array of church leaders, asking for their help in opening a warming center.
But any such shelter must follow city code, and the one Stafford erected at Gaddis Park didn’t, Hurt said.
The city learned of the shelter by someone who called Douglas County dispatch to complain about it, she said. The Roseburg Police Department then got a call for service and responded.
“The concern is that a temporary shelter set up in a pavilion violates park rules and regulations,” she said. “The violations include ‘any activity that is not authorized by a city permit, and which is incompatible with or disrupts the general public use of park property.’ The public has a legal right to be able to access all facilities within parks from dawn to dusk, and to not be kept from using such facilities by unauthorized use and alterations of a park facility.”
And if another such shelter is erected, what then?
“If something else were to be erected in violation of Roseburg park rules and regulations, that would have to come down,” Hurt said.
Hurt also said that the city didn’t dismantle the pavilion warming center Wednesday, Stafford did.
Stafford acknowledged that was true — to a point.
“The option was to take it down or they take it down and give me a criminal citation,” he said Wednesday evening. “It’s tough to stand up for human decency. However, I did choose to have it taken down for a few hours. It’s back up now.”