By Kristen Caldwell
Where do houseless people go when it’s freezing, stormy or flooding?
What if they could go to church?
“When we first talked about the possibility of providing shelter at Oak Grove United Methodist, we knew the need existed in our community and that we had enough space in our building to share, but lining up enough volunteers to staff the shelter all night long for much of the winter was too much,” said Pastor Heather Riggs. “Temporary shelter regulations require that someone be awake all night for fire watch and security, which is hard for volunteers to commit to. Many people also feel intimidated by our houseless neighbors, and wonder how to handle behavior issues.”
Clackamas County Housing, Health and Human Services is piloting a program where churches can contract with the county to provide a space in their buildings for a Severe Weather Warming Shelter and the county provides social workers and supplies to run it. The County also offers to reimburse the church for additional utility costs and any damages that may need to be repaired.
Oak Grove has been open as a Warming Shelter since November, and so far, it’s been a positive experience, Riggs said.
“We’ve had good communication with the social workers who staff our site, and church members have felt good about being able to do something positive about the housing crisis,” Riggs said.
Because the shelter is only open when temperatures are 33F or below, or the weather is otherwise extreme, church members chose to collect snacks and easy to prepare food items, like a cup of noodles, to have on hand for shelter guests, rather than organizing cooked dinners. The church communicated with local community groups to let them know what is going on and our neighbors have responded positively with questions about what they could donate, Riggs said.
So far, there are three churches in the overnight pilot program: St. Paul’s United Methodist, Milwaukie, Oak Grove United Methodist and Zoar Lutheran Church in Canby.
Clackamas County is still looking for more churches within the county to participate in this program. Since the program ends in March, starting now would be a good, short term project for a church that is exploring the idea of shelter, Riggs said. To learn more about this program email Riggs email@example.com, or call Clackamas County at 503-650-5722.