Two weeks ago, when the last heat wave swept through the area, a coalition of local government officials, agency directors and volunteers scrambled to find a location for a cooling center, a place where the homeless could go to get out of the heat. They finally settled on the Roseburg Senior Center, which set up cots inside, put out water and fresh fruit, extended its hours of operations and was even aided by a local medical team.
This week, with another triple-digit heat wave bearing down on the region, the same group of people set out to find a place the homeless could go to stay cool. Only COVID-19 is raging through the area, setting records for new cases and hospitalizations, and it has been deemed too dangerous to open a cooling center at the Senior Center or other facilities.
The Senior Center explained the decision on a note on its Facebook page, and also provided some suggestions for helping people stay cool.
“Due to the explosion of COVID-19 virus cases we cannot risk being the cooling center for the next heat wave,” the note said. “Setting up a canopy village at the water park with ice filled coolers and cold water, and cold food would be a great way to beat the heat. Get some wading pools with ice, run a water hose through the ice water and put misters at the end of the hoses. The misters will cool dramatically. It works really well.”
Christopher Hutton, who does extensive outreach in the homeless community in connection with the Roseburg Dream Center and his Under the Bridge Ministry, said he understands the decision not to open the Senior Center. But he is concerned about what that may mean for people who have nowhere to go to get out of the heat.
“The Senior Center was our only option and right now that is not an option,” Hutton said. “It’s just too big of a risk right now.”
That means whatever efforts there will be to help the homeless stay cool during the next few days will likely come from a group of citizens and devoted volunteers like Hutton.
Or like Max 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. Stafford said volunteers with his organization fanned out Wednesday to deliver food and water to people who had no place to go.
“The only plan I know of is several of us will be delivering water and snacks throughout the days,” Stafford said.
A DANGEROUS HEATThe severe and potentially deadly heat wave is obviously not just a local phenomenon.
Gov. Kate Brown declared a state of emergency Tuesday in Oregon in anticipation of what she called an “extreme heat wave.”
The National Weather Service has warned of dangerously hot conditions throughout the region, with temperatures hitting triple digits throughout much of the state, including a high of 105 degrees in Roseburg on Wednesday.
“Oregon is facing yet another extreme heat wave, and it is critical that every level of government has the resources they need to help keep Oregonians safe and healthy,” Brown said in a statement. “I encourage Oregonians to take proactive steps to keep themselves and their families safe, including drinking plenty of fluids, taking advantage of cooling centers, and checking in on neighbors, friends, and loved ones.”
Brown’s declaration will activate the Emergency Coordination Center to oversee the state’s response to the coming heat. The governor also directed all state agencies to provide whatever assistance is requested by the Office of Emergency Management
The temperature is supposed to hit 106 degrees in Roseburg on Thursday afternoon, then cool down to around 69 degrees in the night, according to the National Weather Service.
Friday’s forecast calls for a high of 103 degrees, and a low of 68. On Saturday the weather is expected to dip just below 100, with a high of 99 and a low of 65, according to the weather service.
During a similar heat wave in June, officials say at least 83 people died of heat-related illness in Oregon, and the hot weather was considered a possible cause in 33 more deaths. Washington state reported more than 100 heat deaths, and officials in British Columbia say hundreds of “sudden and unexpected deaths” were likely due to the soaring temperatures.
At least one person in Roseburg died in what appeared to be a heat-related incident, although the medical examiner did not list it as such in their death report. Jackie Jones, who was homeless, was in a parking lot in the 700 block of Southeast Stephens Street on June 27 at about 5 p.m. as the temperatures hit an all-time high of 113 degrees.
Efforts to revive her were unsuccessful.
Cooling centers were opened throughout Oregon on Wednesday in an effort to avoid more heat-related illnesses and deaths. In Portland, people began coming into a 24-hour cooling center before it even opened Wednesday. Volunteers and county employees set up cots and stacked hundreds of bottles of water in the air-conditioned center in a vacant building.
The city of Roseburg, through its homeless commission, had created a volunteer group, made up mostly of advocates and front-line service providers, that was set up to assist the area’s homeless population in situations like this. The Immediate Needs Ad Hoc Committee, which was created in early June to help deliver food, water and other emergency provisions to homeless in the area. However, it was abruptly shut down July 23.
A note sent out by the city explaining the closure said it was done to avoid an “overlap” in services provided by the Ad Hoc Committee and a group called the Homeless Transition Action Group.
“There has been a concern from the start about the potential for overlap between the city manager’s ad hoc committee and the Homeless Transition Action Group (HTAG) in Douglas County,” the July 23 notice said. “The extent of the overlap between the two groups has become clear in a very short time. Most members of the ad hoc committee are also members of HTAG.”
Wayne Ellsworth, outreach coordinator at the South River Community Health Center, heads up HTAG. Ellsworth said Wednesday morning that he had been working since last week to secure a cooling center, but to date, those efforts had been unsuccessful.
“HTAG and the city of Roseburg is actively recruiting, however, COVID is putting a huge rock in the road,” Ellsworth said.
Back outside in the heat Wednesday, Stafford and his group of volunteers was doing everything they could to provide cold water to the dozens of people who have taken up housing along the Umpqua River between Templin and Gaddis parks.
Stafford said that the recent cleanup of homeless encampments in the area by Roseburg police and city officials has made the situation worse for him and others trying to help by disbursing those living in the camps.
“When the police swept the camps it truly put all the service providers in a disoriented state, as we have lost significant points of contact with many of the homeless,” Stafford said. “They are scattered and or hiding, which makes it difficult to look out for them.”
Some are residents, such as Manya Nicholson, have taken to putting hoses and water bottles in their yards and telling people to help themselves. Nicholson, who volunteered at the Senior Center during the last couple of heat waves, said she felt she had to do something.
She also sent several emails to City Manager Nikki Messenger, imploring her and the city to find some way to keep people cool during this heat wave.
“Hello...what, pray tell, is the city doing for people to cool off during the 2nd unprecedented heat advisory we are having?” Nicholson wrote Tuesday. “I know it is unreasonable for the kids water park to be used. But ...
“HOW ABOUT A HYDRANT OR TWO OPENED UP FOR PEOPLE TO COOL OFF. WITH A SPRINKLER ON THE END. I know they exist. I know you can do this.
“I have the only cooling center in town. I am growing sidewalk for the next three days. What will the city do for its citizens,” she wrote.
Wednesday afternoon, Nicholson sent a second email to Messenger. It read in part:
“Could the sprinklers be turned on? At Gaddis Park? How about the drinking fountains at the parks? How about the sprinklers at Micelli Park?
“Think outside the box, please. The city can help.
“My water bill is going to be large. But if one life is saved or is less stressed, it has been worth it. Read your mission statement please. A bit of water during peak heat can save a life. SAFETY FIRST. HUMANS OVER DROUGHT,” she wrote.
Nicholson said she was still waiting to hear back from Messenger late Wednesday afternoon.