Houseless youth find support and safety at Eugene UMC

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by Sally Blanchard

Being a houseless youth is dangerous. For the approximately 500 without stable housing in Eugene/Springfield, it can mean long days with exposure to the streets that come with hunger, drug use, fear of assault and sexual assault.  Some feel the need to carry and sleep with a weapon like a knife or machete to protect themselves. Though young in years, they make adult decisions every day about how to survive. Day shelters around town and the public library used to offer relief from the long days but they have been closed since mid-March due to state orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recently, Eugene’s First United Methodist Church opened a 30-day emergency shelter for youth to try and help alleviate some of their worries.

Tauna Nelson works with the youth who come to the Egan Shelter Network. Although Lane County fairgrounds was opened as an adult shelter, there was no provision made for unaccompanied minors. The United Methodist church that houses 20 individuals each night provides food, bathrooms, and a warm place to sleep. Most importantly it allows youth a place to let down some of their defenses and feel more comfortable to be themselves, she said.

One of the computer rooms set up in the youth shelter Eugene First UMC.

Nelson has spent 14 years working with youth. She was program director for Hosea Youth Services, a drop-in center for homeless and street impacted youth and before that 15th Night working with the community to end and prevent youth homelessness. She explained that the adults that work at the shelter which is managed by St. Vincent de Paul, want to engage with the youth.  

“We have family meetings in the dining area over a meal once a week to check in. The kids tell us what is working and what they like and don’t like about the shelter. We treat them as young adults with as much buy-in and as many choices as possible,” Nelson said. “They want to decide on things like bedtime and cleaning up after themselves.  They are my best teachers.”

Although the shelter will only be open 30 days as Eugene transitions through the phases of reopening, Nelson sees improvements in the health and well-being of the guests at the shelter.

“Seeing kids come in unsure, with walls up, nervous and guarded and not sure about the space, as they should be, I slowly see the walls come down a bit. Their bodies show signs of relaxing over the days and they want to talk,” Nelson said.

The youth area has a video game tower and computer workstations on loan from the public library. A basketball hoop was added outside. They can work on distance learning set up by the three area school districts.

“Recently I saw a 15 year-old sliding in his socks across the linoleum floor with a blanket slung over his back like a cape, laughing. He was acting like a kid,” smiles Nelson.

Eugene First UMC serves as the Lane County hypothermia shelter for houseless youth when temperatures dip dangerously low in winter. Rev. Adam Briddell said on any given night they are activated, they serve between 20 to 30 youth. He said they decided to open now to try to connect houseless youth to services to replace what has closed.

“Couch surfing that is usually a popular place to spend the night is not good in a pandemic. I stop in a few times a week to say hi to the kids and remind them I’m here and I care,” Briddell said.

Funding has come from the United Way with a grant of $50,000 and Rotary groups donated another $30,000. The Egan Shelter Network was a recipient of one of the offerings during the 2019 Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference session in Eugene.

The church has approval from the Lane County Emergency Operations to offer this service during the COVID-19 crisis and Briddell said the church is following all guidelines regarding cleaning, PPE materials and more while serving the youth in their community.

The congregation has intensely affirmed the use of the building in this way, Briddell said.

“Many church members volunteer, especially younger folks who are not at high risk of the virus.  They feel the asset of our building should be used as a safe place for some of the most vulnerable in our community.”

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