They showed up Thursday afternoon, about two dozen volunteers who wanted to inject a little holiday cheer into the lives of an estimated 100 unhoused individuals by bringing them a hot meal and a friendly smile. In previous years these Christmas Eve meals were served indoors at Roseburg’s lone cold weather shelter, but it isn’t open this year, meaning the holiday season — and upcoming winter — may be less joyful and more dangerous than before.
For nearly a decade, the warming center was run out of the cavernous Foundation Fellowship Church, at 813 SE Lane Ave. The warming center, an offshoot of the Roseburg Dream Center, took in about 50 people on winter nights when the temperatures dipped below freezing. But on some nights the center spread out over the church and took in double that many; during Snowmageddan last winter it housed 126 individuals, said Christopher Hutton, who has helped run the warming center since 2010.
But in August, Foundation Fellowship Church said it needed the space and asked the Dream Center to be out by the end of the month. Scrambling, the Dream Center found a new home at 2555 NE Diamond Lake Blvd. While the building does have several advantages over the Fellowship Church location, which was in a dank basement, it has a lot less space. Add COVID-19 and space becomes even more limited.
Tim Edmondson, director of the Dream Center, said at best the new location could currently hold 25 people at a warming center. Account for the five staff members needed to run such a center, and that leaves room for only 20 people to keep out of the cold, Edmondson said.
And even with social distancing, mask-wearing and other precautions, there is always the threat of an outbreak of the coronavirus, he said. For that reason and others, including a lack of time to find volunteers and put everything in place, the Dream Center board voted not to open a warming center this winter, Edmondson said.
“We run the risk of someone testing positive for COVID,” he said. “We just got over a two-week quarantine, and we don’t want to go through that again.”
Edmondson said he told city officials this summer — when the Dream Center was moving — that with the coronavirus around, the new space would be too small for a warming center. He said he advised those officials to look for a bigger space for such a center, like the fairgrounds, but his words fell on deaf ears.
“We told them this summer that a bigger venue was needed, but the city didn’t pursue having their own warning center. This is too big for the Dream Center to handle,” Edmondson said.
He also said some of the responsibility lies with the unhoused themselves, many of whom are “guys doing their dope” without regard to where they will be staying this winter.
“Let’s don’t point the finger at the city or the Dream Center, this is a citywide problem,” Edmondson said. “It’s just a big mess right now.”
A couple of weeks ago the Roseburg City Council approved new regulations that specifically apply to severe weather shelters; previously they were considered in the same vein as long-term shelters. The new regulations waived the requirements for severe weather shelters to have sprinkler systems as long as they had someone at the shelter overnight to keep an eye on things.
The new regulations also require an inspection from the fire marshal and other checklist items be met before a permit from the city is granted.
Roseburg Community Development Director Stuart Cowie said the Dream Center’s move prompted the city to look into amending its regulations regarding cold weather shelters, but the goal always was to create a situation where other groups could also provide such shelters.
Cowie also said Edmondson never raised any issues with the city’s process of amending its codes or how long it was taking. He pointed out that Edmondson sent in a letter of support for the code changes before the last council meeting.
“Drafting new code and then subsequently amending the code takes time and Tim never indicated to me that the Dream Center would not open because he thought we were taking too long,” Cowie said. “Rather, he referenced concerns around COVID and the challenges it presents.”
COLD WEATHER COMINGBetsy Cunningham, board chair of Housing First Umpqua, which advocates for the unhoused, said she understands everyone involved is doing the best they can to address a difficult situation made worse by the coronavirus.
“The purpose of a warming center is to shelter as many people as possible so they don’t freeze to death,” Cunningham said. “But how can that be done in the era of COVID?”
It wasn’t an overly large group, maybe a dozen or so people huddled in the rain Monday eveni…
Umpqua First held a candlelight vigil this week for five unhoused individuals who died in 2020; Cunningham said she fears the toll could increase this winter.
“Unfortunately, without at least a warming center, we could start the new year with more people dying outside,” she said.
A January survey found 845 people in the county who were identified as unhoused, including 183 under the age of 18.
Instead of providing a warming center, the plan is to provide the unhoused as many items as possible to help them stay safe despite the cold, Hutton said.
“The reality right now is that people are the safest, and the best place for them to be, is staying sheltered in place,” Hutton said. “The only way to do that during cold weather is to keep them dry, keep them warm, so they can stay healthy.”
The Roseburg City Council has been focusing on the issue of the unhoused all year, and recently took some initial steps to address the matter.
In addition to the changes regarding severe weather shelters, the council recently approved a program that will let a limited number of people sleep overnight in their vehicles. The program will allow up to six vehicles to stay in a maximum of three approved locations in the city, from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m.
Hutton said while having people live in their vehicles is certainly not ideal, it’s a start. He also said he runs across people living in their vehicles all the time in his outreach work, and just last weekend saw a family with three children in the backseat using their car for shelter.
“They’re out there, it’s just that they’re hidden in town,” Hutton said. “They try not to be seen.”
So far no one in the city has applied to open a warming center or a vehicle camping site, Cowie said.
Edmondson said if the weather got really bad — think Smowmaggedan — he might open a warming center on a limited basis. He also said the Dream Center is collecting sleeping bags, tarps, blankets and other items to help keep the unhoused dry and as warm as possible.
The Dream Center has also been collecting food for the Christmas Eve distribution. The center received six hams the first day of the food drive and by Thursday had gathered enough food to feed about 100 people.
Volunteers cooked the meals and dished them into biodegradable containers — each containing ham, beans, mashed potatoes, corn, dinner roll and cookies. Then the volunteers visited five homeless encampments in the city and handed out the meals.
They also distributed a number of other items to help make the tough going a little more bearable, including sleeping bags, mats, ponchos, knit scarves and beanies, toiletries, clothing and dog food.
It rained on Christmas and the weather turned colder over the weekend, with the forecast calling for temperatures dipping below freezing Sunday night into Monday morning.