Church group wants to open center for overnight winter stays

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - In the fellowship hall of Plymouth Presbyterian Church in St. Helens, a group has been meeting regularly to plan a warming center, addressing the city's very real, but largely unseen homeless population.When Kathy Bauska thinks of homelessness in Columbia County, she remembers one woman in particular.

Bauska, who helps coordinate the bi-weekly Community Meals program out of the First Lutheran Parish Hall in St. Helens, said the woman would come in and eat her meal and then go back outside. She slept under a bridge. Temperatures that winter frequently dropped down into the low 20s at night.

“I just knew that hot meal wasn’t going to last her,” Bauska said.

Columbia County has one shelter, but it is operated by the Women’s Resource Center for women and children, the majority of them fleeing domestic violence situations. The county provides housing during emergencies, but this is designed for people who, because of the emergency, are unable to stay at their own homes.

“It is not designed for homelessness,” said Renate Garrison, with Columbia County Emergency Management.

And while there are multiple food banks and meal programs, there is nowhere for homeless people who need a warm place to sleep.

Recently, one group has organized to address a portion of Columbia County’s very real but largely unseen homeless population in St. Helens.

Filling a need

Composed primarily of members from area churches and meeting in the community hall of Plymouth Presbyterian Church in St. Helens, the group is planning a two-week trial run for the first warming center in St. Helens in recent memory. The trial run is tentatively set to occur during the two coldest weeks in winter — typically the last week of January and the first week of February.

They are still looking for a location for the warming center, but have already begun to assemble supplies and organize training for volunteers.

If they are able to successfully complete the trial run, the group members will look to establish a permanent program by next winter, said Plymouth Presbyterian Church member Jan Stites, who has acted as secretary for the group, typing up minutes and sending out e-mail notifications.

For years, she had been welcoming into her home young people who needed a place to stay.

“I came from the angle of wanting to do something for teens,” she said. One day, talking with her fellow church members, they decided, “You know, we just have to make this happen. We can’t wait.”

The volunteer group began meeting weekly at the end of November and has since firmed up its plans. While they agreed a center has long been needed, not everyone was ready for what it might mean to operate one.

“We all need to have the skill to say ‘no’ ... and say it graciously but firmly,” said Tillie MakePeace, a member of the Plymouth Presbyterian Church. “That will be the hardest thing anyone in this room will learn to do,” she told the group at their second meeting Dec. 10.

MakePeace, with her background as program director with Janus Youth Programs in Portland, has been guiding the group in how to set up the center.

“Homeless folks expect us to judge them, they expect us to give them a hard time for one thing or another,” she reminded the group.

A warming center is about welcoming in guests, who, as long as they abide by the center’s rules, can spend the night, she emphasized. It is not about knowing who is on parole, or who has a restraining order against them and enforcing these laws — something some group members were clearly uncomfortable with letting slide at first, leading one woman to ask, “Is our discomfort getting in the way of what we want to do?”

At the most recent meeting on Dec. 17, Stites said the group seems more united and ready to press forward. They realize they have a very short time to pull this all together, she said.

“The homeless community is a unique culture,” MakePeace said. “It isn’t like the volcano or the flood. It’s part of our culture, part of our society.”

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