‘Homeless family warming center’ put to immediate use in Russell Neighborhood

Opening of this center surprised and concerned some neighbors. But, find out why officials and social services advocates say it’s desperately needed, here in outer East Portland …

As the sign on NE Halsey Street proclaims, this church is the location for outer East Portland’s new homeless family warming shelter.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
As outer East Portland shivered in the grip of an icy cold snap, fewer homeless families will spend the night – on this Thanksgiving Day weekend – huddled in a makeshift shelter, or even a vehicle, thanks to a new ‘warming shelter’ opened earlier this month.

On November 1, the Homeless Family Warming Center at Eastminster Presbyterian Church, 12505 NE Halsey Street, opened its doors.

The pastor of Eastminster Presbyterian, Rev. Brian Heron, welcomes guests to the dedication of the new warming shelter.

Rev. Brian Heron, the pastor of Eastminster Presbyterian, talked with us about why and how they converted several Sunday School rooms into a nighttime homeless shelter.

“This came out of a conversation we began within the church about a year ago,” Heron explained. “We’re looking at our declining membership. We switched the conversation around from ‘not having enough people’ to ‘having more space than we can use’ on a regular basis.”

Rev. Heron says it “makes sense” to have some of their church’s facilities used more than for one hour a week.

As the church group assessed community needs, the idea of partnering with Human Solutions came about, Heron continued. “Serving the homeless, using our available space, made a lot of sense. As a faith community, we want to make good use of God’s resources – for more than just an hour on Sunday.”

Their part, the pastor observed, is contributing the space. “We’ve dedicated five rooms for the shelter; three for cots, a kitchen, and a craft/nursery room. Human Solutions is contributing to the staffing; they are receiving Multnomah County funding. The other part of this is pulling the community together to volunteer food, tutoring for the kids, and helping with crafts.”

Rev. Chuck Currie, United Church of Christ, ends his dedicatory prayer, “Let this warming center be a place of light in the darkness; more than just a place to get warm – but, the place to find hope.”

Warming center dedicated at ceremony
On November 4, organization leaders and elected officials came to dedicate the Homeless Family Warming Center at Eastminster Presbyterian Church.

The Executive Director of Human Solutions, Jean DeMaster, said that the overall community agrees on certain issues. “One of those issues is that homeless children, and homeless parents, should not be outside on cold, wet winter nights. That’s what we’re here about today: Making sure that for every homeless family in Multnomah County this winter there is a safe, warm, and dry place for them to be.”

Jean DeMaster, Executive Director of Human Solutions, says residents need not fear a homeless family warming shelter coming into their neighborhood.

DeMaster said the space they used as a warming shelter last year at “Join”, now located in the Montavilla Neighborhood, became unavailable. “We needed to find a new location. We’re pleased to work with Pastor Heron and the congregation here at Eastminster. “In this space, we have more ability to help the homeless families, because we have more room for the parents, and more room for the kids.”

Their first night open, 14 children and adults used the center, DeMaster said.

Sometimes people are afraid of having a shelter in their neighborhood, DeMaster confided. “We’re very pleased to work with the neighborhood, and we’re pleased to see the neighbors who are here supporting us.”

Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury says she’s concerned about the skyrocketing number of homeless families in the area as this winter begins.

Astounding statistics revealed by Commissioner
Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury also spoke at the dedication, saying that touring the shelter touched her heart.

“Multnomah County has set an ambitious goal – to shelter each person who is homeless,” Kafoury said. “A decade ago we found 1,800 people; this year, 4,500 people are homeless – enough people to fill Portland’s largest hotel, three times over.”

The Commissioner continued, “The shocking part of that is that over half of those people counted as homeless are families. Both nationally and locally, families are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population.”

But, seeing the cots set up in the shelter, Kafoury said, “It’s moving and touching; it gives one hope.”

Dennis Clark, who works for Human Solutions at the Eastminster, says the families he sees at the shelter say they are “really grateful”.

Neighborhood leaders comment
About the new shelter, Bonny McKnight, Co-chair, Russell Neighborhood Association, talked about the opening of the new homeless warming shelter.

“I understand the importance of the shelter,” McKnight began. “On behalf of Russell Neighborhood Association, I’ll say that we’re pleased that Human Solutions came to our meeting to talk about the project at our meeting in November. It was a productive discussion.”

McKnight continued, “I hope adequate services are provided during daytime hours to give them what they need to change their life and end their homelessness. We are working with Human Solutions to get a better picture of the entire effort and to identify how the short-term program can be made most effective for everyone – clients and community alike.”

The Eastminster warming shelter is being used, primarily, by homeless families with young children.

Another long-time resident of the area, who asked not to be identified, expressed concern that the shelter was promoted as providing services to as many as 60 homeless people a night.

In an interview later in November, DeMaster told us that Eastminster’s warming center has an “operational capacity” of between 25 and 35 adults and children. “During severe weather, if a family has no other options, this center can accept more; the ‘emergency capacity’ is up to 60 individuals. What we’re seeing is larger families; on November 23, the center had 17 young people and 12 adults.”

NE Halsey Street is a boundary line; the Hazelwood Neighborhood Association begins on the south side of Halsey.

Hazelwood’s Chair, Arlene Kimura, said they also expected to have a presentation by Human solutions at their November meeting.

“My personal point of view,” Kimura told us, “is I do not think there will be significant negative impacts to Hazelwood. The church membership is taking an active effort to engage with the greater community. I applaud the church members and leaders for taking this step. I am hoping this center will also be able to provide a safer and more positive environment for those families who are currently living out of their vehicles in shopping center parking lots.”

Inside the doors, partially hidden by trees in the church’s court, families can find shelter from the cold this winter.

DeMaster told us that during the day families staying in the Eastminster warming center will be able to access housing, employment, and other services designated to quickly end their homelessness at the nearby Human Solutions Daybreak Shelter, located at 12727 SE Market Street. (CLICK HERE to see the Daybreak Shelter’s webpage.)

The Homeless Family Warming Center at Eastminster Presbyterian operates from November 1, 2010 until at least March 31, 2011. The church will be open every night from 7:00 pm to 7:00 am.

For more information about the Eastminster Presbyterian Church, see their website: CLICK HERE.

© 2010 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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