Oak Grove UMC transforms into wildfire shelter for homeless

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Volunteers worked quickly last week to transform Oak Grove UMC into a wildfire relief shelter.

It took less than five hours on Thursday for Oak Grove United Methodist Church, in a neighborhood south of Portland, to go from closed due to COVID-19 to open in order to house transient people who needed a place to stay due to nearby wildfires.

Pastor Heather Riggs attributes the success of a five-hour turnaround to three things: Strong community partnerships, a District Superintendent willing to make adaptations to the church’s COVID-19 guidelines rapidly and a county health department quick to provide guidelines and resources.

“At 2 p.m. on Thursday we had a local homeless day shelter from Oregon City at our door after they had been evacuated,” Riggs said.

She first got word at 10 a.m. that morning, via text message that some of the transient population in nearby Oregon City were being turned away from typical shelters where they would go in, say, a snowstorm or other natural disaster, perhaps due to COVID-19 concerns.

Riggs then got on a phone call with other ecumenical partners in Oak Grove only to learn Oak Grove UMC was the only church with available space to house the transient population.

“I was the only one who had a building who was willing to try it,” Riggs said.

Social workers from nearby Providence Health Services as well as the Clackamas County Health Department met her at the church to inspect the property, set limits on capacity, provide sanitation guidelines and Providence provided the church with the proper PPE equipment.

Riggs and other volunteers had to make quick changes to bathrooms, due to COVID-19 guidelines from the health department, to make them non-binary because of the size of the bathrooms and the limits on the number of people who could be in one at any given time.

By 3 p.m., she had a clean inspection from the health department.

She also had the approval of Columbia District Superintendent Tim Overton-Harris, who had to work within the Greater Northwest Area’s “Reimagining Life Together” guidelines to make an exception for Riggs to use the church for this purpose, and make sure everything was being documented.

“He worked heroically to create policy and make this kosher,” Riggs said of Overton-Harris.

Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky has given temporary permission for churches to provide support to wildfire relief efforts that supersede the Reimagining Life Together guidelines churches are currently operating under.

Churches must work with their DS or Director of Connectional Ministries – if they are a ministry setting other than a church – to discuss the community need and the request from a local government authority and/or established disaster response agency (such as the Red Cross) to provide relief or support. The church or ministry setting must have a written plan authorized by either a DS or DCM.

For Overton-Harris, the first thing he’s doing is listening to the issue a church might be trying to address. He’s then asking churches questions about COVID-19 related guidelines such as: Has the church taken into consideration that their volunteers might qualify as being part of the at-risk population for coronavirus?

Because he and other District Superintendents in the Greater Northwest Area have been connected with the COVID-19 crisis management team and now the wildfire disaster response teams, they know how to ask critical questions quickly and help expedite the process so churches can minister to their communities.

“We’re not trying to add another layer,” said Overton-Harris, who is currently working with three other churches in the Columbia District trying to provide some sort of wildfire relief.

With a DS blessing in hand and a clean inspection from the county, Riggs said ministry partners from nearby churches such as St. Paul’s UMC in Milwaukie brought over mats and blankets while organizations such as the Rotary Club have worked to provide meals – which must be individually packaged and served under COVID-19 guidelines. A nearby Lutheran church provided hygiene kits to Oak Grove UMC as well.

When shelters are full – as they appeared to have been in Clackamas County last week – Riggs said transient populations typically camp out in parking lots and sometimes they have lung or other respiratory illnesses.

“They couldn’t camp in a parking lot with the pea soup we call air right now,” Riggs said.

Riggs has been working with Lutheran partners, Anna Hoesly and Sara Gross Samuelson, to staff the facility around the clock. Because Gross Samuelson and Hoesly both have children, they’ve been taking the day shift, while Riggs has been on overnight duty.

They are working on adding more volunteers because they need to keep the ratio at two volunteers to every 20 guests. If Oak Grove UMC gets one more evacuee, per health department guidelines, they’ll need to open up another side of their building.

Riggs said that it has been heart-warming to see the diversity of help coming their way – people she never expected to help are stepping up in amazing ways.

“Really, this has been a community-wide effort,” she said.

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