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Home for the night

Beaverton church and volunteers provide warm, safe shelter to area transients
by: Jaime Valdez Guests spent Saturday night in the Severe Weather Shelter at the First Baptist Church of Beaverton.

Most residents have distinct memories about the big snowfall that blanketed the Beaverton area in the final weeks of 2008. But for Kelly Nelson, that unusually heavy dumping and cold snap just before Christmas marked a turning point.

Since then, it's been Mother Nature's whims that dictate Nelson's evening plans in the winter months - or at least the National Weather Service's predictions of them.

'I'm always watching the weather,' Nelson said from the basement of the church at 5755 S.W. Erickson Ave. on Saturday night. 'If it's 32 degrees or below for two days in a row, we're open.'

For the past four years, Nelson, college and community minister at the First Baptist Church of Beaverton, has directed Beaverton's only officially recognized Severe Weather Shelter, based in the church's basement activities and dining area.

A place to be

As the late fall chill gave way to frost last week, the shelter opened its doors for the 2011-12 season. Nelson and a bevy of volunteers set up cots, tables, a working kitchen and DVD-viewing area to prepare for the influx of visitors.

When day turns to night and the mercury dips, the volunteers welcome a steady trickle of guests seeking a warm place to sleep, a meal or two and a bit of company. On this particular Saturday, about 10 guests came by to escape the dry but frosty evening.

'On the first night it's five or six, the next night it's more, and it always just raises up,' Nelson said.

On its busiest nights in previous winters, the shelter has welcomed as many as 30 guests, most of whom don't have a regular, safe place to call home.

'Some sleep in their cars, and some find a place wherever they can,' Nelson said. 'There are all sorts of amazing stories you'll hear. They'll tear your heart out.'

Provided they aren't disruptive and don't bring in alcohol, drugs or weapons, no one seeking shelter for the night is turned away.

'It's been extremely smooth,' Nelson said. 'Crazy things happen, of course. Some guests have mental illnesses, but they're harmless. For the most part, people are very respectful.'

Happy accident

Funding for the shelter is provided through a variety of donations, grants and the occasional benefit concert. The Beaverton Police Department and other law enforcement agencies provide logistical support, sending those in need to the shelter and making sure the melting pot of humanity is safe and secure.

It was actually a call from a Beaverton officer during that big snow of '08 that first alerted Nelson to the lack of an official cold-weather shelter in Beaverton

'It was very accidental,' she says of the shelter's birth. 'We'd had this huge snow, the biggest in 10 years. Police started calling around and asked if we'd stay open for the homeless.'

A few more phone calls later, and the then-makeshift shelter was up and running.

'I thought, 'It doesn't seem right to leave people out in the cold,'' Nelson said.

And while other churches were eager to donate food and assistance, she recalled, 'We were the only church that stayed open.'

With coordination help from Washington County officials including Homeless Program Coordinator Annette Evans, Nelson and her crew learned as they went along.

'We didn't know what the heck we were doing,' admitted Nelson, an Oklahoma native and 22-year member of the church. 'It kind of just fell on me. (But) this is right up my alley.'

Common ground

The shelter has 45 active volunteers, all of whom are screened for criminal backgrounds, including sexual predator-related offenses. As many as 60 have made themselves available, but more are always welcome.

'We would like about 75,' Nelson said. 'That would be our goal.'

Beaverton resident Bill Herd has volunteered with Nelson since the shelter's inception. After donating his time to a soup kitchen in downtown Portland, the retired father of three decided to give something back in his immediate community.

'I enjoy it,' he said. 'I like the people I meet. I like their stories. And from a selfish standpoint, it gives me something to do.'

The experience opened his eyes to larger problems in society.

'Just because you're homeless doesn't make you a bum,' he added. 'It's made me change my way of thinking.'

Comfort zone

Brian Grayson, a regular shelter guest, grew up in Hillsboro and lives in a sport-utility vehicle he purchased through seasonal employment in building demolition.

Ambling from the room where a DVD of 'Blind Date' was playing to the kitchen to banter with Nelson and Herd, Grayson said he'd give the shelter a rating of 'five out of five.'

'I love this place,' he said. 'The people who volunteer here are wonderful, beautiful people who want the best for us. They go out of their way to make sure we're happy and get what we need.'

He's impressed with anyone who chooses to depart their regular life to help others in need.

'They have families and come volunteer here to work with us. To me, that's huge,' Grayson said.

Nelson admitted she doesn't mind a little white stuff in the winter, even if it affects her work schedule.

'I love snow,' she said with a grin. 'But I would be here. I couldn't play in it.'