In the midst of the worst snowstorm in recent history late one February night last winter, Tim Black walked the block around First Christian Church in downtown Eugene. Black was with one other person on a night shift at one of the Egan Warming Centers.
Black and his companion came across a woman asleep outside, on concrete, in the bitter cold. Slowly, the pair was able to rouse the woman and get her into the nearest warming shelter, potentially saving her from freezing to death.
For the unhoused population, winter adds the hazards that come with wet days and cold nights. Black is the Winter Strategy Coordinator for the St. Vincent DePaul Society of Lane County. His job is mainly focused on the Egan Warming Center, a series of emergency shelters managed by SVDP during the cold season.
Lane County identified 1,641 people experiencing homelessness during a January 2018 Point-in-Time count. In contrast, there were 439 dedicated beds for the county’s unhoused population in 2018, according to a Shelter Feasibility Study developed by the Technical Assistance Collaborative. The Egan Warming Center helps fill that bed gap when forecasted overnight low temperatures are dangerous for people living on the streets.
Egan’s emergency shelters are active between Nov. 15 and Mar. 31, on nights when the temperature is expected to drop below 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
Black described the shelters as the “last safety net” for the unhoused population during the winter. The shelters are low barrier, meaning there is no pre-screening for access. Egan offers users a warm, dry place to have a meal. Whether a guest has been drinking or using other substances is not considered as long as they follow the rules.
Egan operates nine shelters throughout Eugene and Springfield. Right now, Black is focused on making sure each site is prepped and volunteers are ready.
“We’re going to have storage containers delivered to the sites the week before the 15th so they’ll be in place. We’re not gonna wait until we activate for that, they’ll be there ready to go. We’ll have our volunteer leaders’ teams put together. We will make sure that our scheduling software works, and we will make sure we have any new volunteers entered in that system,” Black said.
The shelters are volunteer-run and getting enough help can be difficult, Black said. According to their report from last winter, the Egan shelters activated 22 times and saw at least 1,500 unique individuals and 6,800 stays. It took over 1,100 volunteers more than 23,000 hours to make that possible.
That doesn’t include support from other community groups. Arwen DeSpain is the founder and executive director of Carry It Forward. In addition to bringing survival supplies directly to the homeless, DeSpain’s organization delivers clean clothes, bedding and other supplies to the Egan shelters.
DeSpain makes it clear that the value of being warm and dry cannot be overstated, especially when it comes to a person’s feet. “I’ve seen people have toe amputations from being stuck in wet shoes for a long period of time. I’ve seen feet that should not exist in a civilized society right here in our town. Socks are a big deal,” DeSpain said.
Black echoed the importance of quality socks and shoes. “Feet is a hard thing for people who are unhoused. We always would love to have more waterproof, good winter footwear. Always,” Black said.
In addition to donating supplies, Black said there are a lot of ways the community can get involved. Egan is always in need of volunteers. There is often downtime during shifts and student volunteers can use that time to study, Black said.
One of Egan’s shelters is located near campus at the Central Lutheran Church on the corner of 18th Avenue and Potter Street.
“I wish that Egan didn’t have to be there,” Black said. “I wish we didn’t need an emergency winter shelter on those really cold nights. I wish that all of our guests had other housing that was available to them. They don’t. We can’t just sit on our hands and wish the problem away”
Community members can donate directly to Egan by labeling donations “Egan Warming Center” and dropping them off at any St. Vincent DePaul location in Lane County.
Three volunteer orientations have been scheduled for those interested, the first will be on Oct. 26. Details are available on the Egan Warming Center website.
The caption for this story's featured photo was corrected on Oct. 21 to use the correct name of the pictured church. It is Central Lutheran Church, not First Christian Church.