Photo Illustration

By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

The lessons in checking my privilege begin before I arrive at the Community Action Agency (CAA)Warming Center in North Salem.

I left the house early intent on picking up a more-sugar-than-coffee coffee from my favorite spot downtown, a few blocks from where I will spend the next four hours checking in some of the area’s homeless residents for the night.

As I drive, I think back to my day off, which I spent digging into a video game I got for Christmas and watching beautiful, and unexpected, snow blanket my backyard. In retrospect, it seemed like a day spent gaming was a way to avoid thinking about what such cold temperatures meant for those living on the street.

I’d signed up for a shift at the temporary Warming Center, located at the old Oregon Department of Energy (ODE) office on Marion Street Northeast, the day after the call for volunteers went out. Temperatures were expected to be in the high teens at the time the activation was planned, but it had warmed a few degrees since the initial decision to open the center. The coldest temperatures were now expected in a few days and CAA organizers are planning to extend the number of days the warming center will be open to accommodate the new forecast.

By the time I cross the Salem-Keizer border, I’ve given up on the pursuit of coffee. I left early because I didn’t want to show up at the Warming Center with a better cup o’ joe than what we’ll be serving to warming center visitors – decaf coffee and hot water for tea, cocoa and bouillon. The more I think about how I spent the hours leading up to my shift, froufrou coffee takes on an air of unnecessary opulence.

It means I arrive at the warming center half an hour early, but I check-in anyway in hope of being able to assist in set-up for the evening. There is already a small line of homeless people waiting outside.

Organizers have already laid out sleeping pads, about an inch-and-a-half thick, on the floor. There’s approximately 80 of them and I’m told by CAA Deputy Director Cyndi Astley they are expecting to fill up this evening.

I’m given a tour of the facility which is mostly open space and a few rooms off the main floor where supplies, donated items and the bags of visitors are kept. There’s also a common area where visitors can eat, drink and keep company.

There will be a full orientation at 7:30 p.m. with the other people on my shift, but I get enough to know the lay of the land and then help unpack some of the evening’s supplies.

Shortly before we start checking people in, a member of the community pulls up in a truck with food and five still-in-the-box, cold-weather sleeping bags. Organizers accept the sleeping bags, but decline the food. The ODE Warming Center hours have been set up so that homeless individuals can get a meal at Union Gospel Mission and then walk over to one of two warming centers, the other is located at an old car dealership a few blocks away.

As the doors open, I am posted at the bag check-in station. Visitors to the center are only supposed to have a small, transparent bag of personal belongings at their sleeping space. Everything else – including sleeping bags, blankets and pillows – gets put in drawstring trash bags and labeled with a name and number for pick-up when the warming center closes in the morning.

I’m told by a volunteer who worked the night before that we should ask if they were here the previous night because they may have a bag with a blanket already stored at the site. If not, they get a new one. The wool blankets we dole out work fine indoors, but fare poorly in the elements.

I work my way through the first couple of visitors and feel as though I need to be more welcoming. I start trying to initiate something more like a conversation and immediately shove my foot halfway down my throat.

I ask one visitor as he puts his backpack in a trash bag if he has everything he needs for the night. “Not a dang thing,” he responds with disbelief at my out-of-touch question.

I try again with the next visitor as I collect his belongings, “How are you doing?” He was checking into a warming shelter, and if I’d given it a second’s thought I would have nixed that question, too.

By the fourth or fifth try, I finally settle on, “How are you holding up tonight?” Some visitors barely respond while others engage me in small talk. A couple thank me for taking the time to volunteer, which makes me feel like a fraud. To my mind, four hours is such a small sacrifice to make in the face of a mounting problem throughout the area.

All the while, I’m having to enforce the rules about what is allowed in the sleeping area. Small transparent bags, nothing else but the clothes on your back. Make sure you have your cell phones, cigarettes, and medication if you need them close. I’ve become the TSA agent of the down-and-out.

Regardless of how it makes me feel to be an enforcer, the rules are in place for a reason. Keeping personal belongings in a secure area means no one will be tempted to rummage through another person’s stuff, which reduces conflict and the need to push anyone back out onto the street on a frigid night.

Somewhere around this time, I remember what Cyndi told us right before we opened the doors, “We’re here tonight so someone isn’t freezing to death on the street.” Within that context, asking someone to surrender all their worldly possessions in return for a night of shelter is enough of a prod that I keep going.

About an hour into my shift, intake slows to a trickle.

Until the lights shut off at 10 p.m., I spend the time visiting with fellow volunteers and some of the night’s visitors. Several of the volunteers are looking for ways they can get involved during the rest of the week, either through donations or additional shifts, while visitors seem more keen on just finding a friendly ear. Mostly, however, they keep to themselves. Not long after the lights dim, I realize that the primary myth of the warming center is that it’s not what anyone with regular access to a central heating system would consider warm.

The front door has been held open by the line of visitors for the better part of the night and the temperature seems to drop several degrees as people stop moving around and settle in. It’s a good bit warmer than the outside temperature of 33 degrees, but its closer to the times when my family has awoken to something having gone wrong with our furnace and the temperature inside is somewhere between 55 and 63 degrees.

On top of that, most of our visitors have only a thin sleeping pad and a blanket to ward off the chill. They’re also trying to sleep in a cavernous room where any warm air is rising well above them. Those days my family has endured without indoor heating were spent with blankets piled atop us at night, and sometimes it didn’t feel like enough.

By the time my shift ends at 11:30 p.m., I’ve put my jacket back on and I’m fighting the urge to put up the hood on my sweatshirt. I bathe in warm air from my car’s heater the second it warms up to an acceptable temperature and then take a steaming shower to finish the job before falling into bed.

The temptation with stories like these is always to wrap them up with a tidy bow. A signifier that things are rough, but there are good people trying to make a difference. That is true, but it’s also true that the need for services like warming shelters isn’t going away. We can’t wish them into oblivion, and someone is always going to be needed to collect personal belongings as our area’s homeless residents check-in at shelters and warming centers. Anyone who can make it through such a task without feeling a twinge of shame at their indulgences is tougher than me.

At the same time, local government leaders have been collaborating on a task force for the past year trying to figure out a better approach to tackling the problems of homelessness. The task force stops meeting in February and concrete plans for the way forward are still somewhat sketchy beyond endorsing the work of some nonprofit groups dealing with the issue in their own ways.

The worst possible outcome is to end up yet with another plan/study/pamphlet of services that sits on a shelf for the next decade and collects dust while waiting for funding that never materializes.

The warming centers may prevent someone from freezing to death on the streets, but it a far cry from restoring anyone’s dignity. It’s incumbent upon all of us to find a better way to do both.

As of press time, Wednesday, Jan. 4, volunteers are still needed for the remaining warming center shifts. Visit www.mwvcaa.org to sign up. The warming centers can also use donations of Clorox wipes, large black garbage bags with drawstrings, thick masking tape, powdered creamer, sugar, bouillon, and the following clothing items in adult sizes: warm coats, gloves, knit caps, socks, jeans and sweatshirts.