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In from the cold

Assistance - Frigid weather sees a couple dozen people stay the night in Washington County shelters planned for just that purpose
by: Chase Allgood, Mike Zarko, who lives on the streets in Portland, rode the Max train and TriMet bus to seek overnight shelter in Forest Grove.

As temperatures fell below freezing last week, a novel group of congregants migrated toward a handful of area churches.

They were homeless people trying to find someplace warm and safe to spend the night.

'People who have nowhere to go and who live outside are beginning to hear that, at least when the weather gets really cold, there is a place for them,' wrote Eric Canon, chairman of the Washington County Interfaith Committee on Homelessness, in a mid-week e-mail to volunteers.

Bright-orange business cards, posted near area can and bottle recycling centers, helped spread the word that four parish halls were open during the first phase of the county's new Severe Weather Response Plan: Forest Grove United Church of Christ, Hillsboro United Church of Christ, Calvin Presbyterian Church in Tigard and Tualatin United Methodist Church.

Doors swing wide

The Forest Grove UCC on College Way swung its doors wide to accommodate overnight stays as long as the bitter cold weather lasted.

Last Monday night, 10 people showed up. Tuesday night there were 14 people. By Wednesday, 21 folks were bunking down inside the church's main hall. Thirteen more came Thursday and 21 on Friday.

'People started hearing about it on the street,' said Tori Eaton, a UCC member and one of about a dozen volunteers who spent the night with the homeless folks over the five-day period.

The volunteers - some UCC members and some from other congregations and Pacific University - stayed the night to supervise and tend to the guests' needs.

On Tuesday night, a married couple, a family of four and eight single men camped out on the carpeted floor inside Fellowship Hall.

They were asked to agree to a few simple rules, such as quieting down by 10 p.m. and leaving by 7 the next morning, when a women's exercise class would take over the space, and sign their first names to an intake form.

Then they were invited to eat supper - chili, muffins, canned peaches and cupcakes - and grab a place to sleep.

One woman brought a color TV in from her car and plugged it in so the visitors could watch 'American Idol.'

Two hours later, most were sprawled out on the floor or dozing on benches and couches. The room's temperature gauge was set at a toasty 70 degrees.

Outside, the thermometer read 22 degrees.

For most in the group, the frigid weather was a major motivator for showing up at the church's side door. The husband and wife, who'd been sleeping outdoors in a homeless camp near Sherwood, were thrilled to have a warm place to stay.

'People are extremely happy about what we're doing,' Eaton observed. 'They're just very grateful.'

Members of the family, which toted its belongings in a Safeway grocery cart, played cards together until the lights went out.

Several of the men hung around in the church's kitchen, serving themselves second helpings of the chili that bubbled in a pot on the stove.

No frills

The severe weather plan comes with no frills attached, but organizers hope they're helping to keep at least a few people from freezing outside during long winter nights.

'When no one showed up last Sunday, I started asking myself, 'is this a service people need?'' Eaton said. 'We want to make sure it's something they want, not just what we think should happen.'

Canon, a Forest Grove resident and UCC member, agreed. He and Tim Orr, another church member, planned to gather shelter volunteers together Tuesday afternoon to assess how things went during the first full week of the severe weather program.

'We want to know what went right and if anything went wrong,' Canon said, 'so we can determine what we could do better next time.'


MAN HOMELESS, BUT NOT HOPELESS

In the four weeks since the calendar turned on the New Year, life hasn't changed much for Mike Zarko.

He's still waiting to awaken from the 'long, weird dream' that dominated his days and nights in 2007.

'Last year just blew my mind,' Mike said, feeling his pocket for the pack of cigarettes he always carries. 'It's been like a very strange vacation.'

A vacation, he said, from his former 'normal life,' when he went to work, paid his bills and came home to a wife and four children.

For nearly a year now, Mike - who has a full-time job as a maintenance engineer at a downtown Portland hotel - has lived on the streets, bunking in with other men at the Portland Rescue Mission or crashing in the bushes at Washington Park.

Last Tuesday night, after perusing the Internet for an overnight alternative, he hopped on a Max train and made his way to Forest Grove, where he came in from the cold at the United Church of Christ.

Mike, 49, was one of 25 people who took advantage of the Washington County Severe Weather Response Plan during last week's cold snap. The program gives homeless people a hot meal and a place to sleep between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. when the temperature dips below 28 degrees for two days in a row.

He was familiar with Forest Grove because several years back he stayed at the Budget Inn behind Scottie's on C Street while working a summer job in construction.

'It's a nice town out here,' he observed.

Break from boredom

For Mike, the 90-minute train and bus ride to the west end of the county was more of a break from boredom than an escape from icy streets.

After sitting down with a cup of freshly made coffee, he poured out his story, including tales of ornery and belligerent floor-mates at some Portland shelters.

'It's loud, obnoxious and crowded there,' he said, admitting that there were nights when he preferred to sleep under one of Portland's bridges. 'I came out here to get away from all that.'

Sometimes, Mike said, he just needs to be someplace quiet, where he can kick back and do some thinking.

'This is like the Hilton compared to some places I've been,' he observed, glancing around the room.

'I'll be back tomorrow night.'

Last January, Mike was sharing a house in Northeast Portland with two other men. Even though child support obligations and payments to the Internal Revenue Service gobbled up nearly half his $18-an-hour paycheck, he could handle the $175 monthly rent.

Then, he said, the owner of the house 'up and sold it,' leaving him without an affordable place to live.

Out on the streets for the first time in his life, Mike quickly became part of a tight network of homeless people who share information about how to get by.

'The first thing you do is get wired into every place that has free meals and a place to bunk down,' Mike said, 'because that's basically what your life is - figuring that stuff out on a daily basis.'

One Beaverton church offers meals 'that rival the best restaurants,' Mike learned. Some shelters have fewer rules and requirements than others.

Mike has another option most of his street peers don't: for $39, he can get a room at one of his employer's hotel facilities. When he's feeling flush, once every couple months or so, he does just that.

'I'm pretty lucky because I can do my laundry at work and take a shower there,' Mike said.

A long fall

Still, it's a long fall from where he used to be. Mike worked construction jobs after retiring from the Navy and, in his off hours, enjoyed attending one of his three sons' high school football games or his daughter's gymnastics meets.

That scenario, which played out in a comfortable suburban neighborhood near Seattle, came to an end in 1991, when he and his wife, Pam, got a divorce.

A graduate of the University of Washington who grew up in Olympic Heights overlooking Puget Sound, Mike never doubted he could find and keep a job.

He has a degree in business administration and doesn't do drugs or drink.

'No, I can't afford that,' he said, shaking his head.

The events of the last 12 months have opened Mike's eyes to the realities of life on the streets.

'Not everyone out here is an addict or mentally challenged,' he said. 'There are a lot of us who are just trying to make it as best we can.'

Just like in the past, Mike works - and he pays most of his bills. But a $30,000 tab for back child support and an $8,000 federal income tax debt have made a mess of his personal finances.

Mike broke a rib when he fell down some stairs last winter. A number of his front teeth are missing, the result of chewing tobacco.

He has health insurance, but it's hard to make the co-pays and out-of-pocket expenses for doctor visits.

'I look at myself in the mirror and think, 'how did I get here'? Mike said. 'All I know is, I'm going to survive.'

Mike hopes to keep squirreling money away, little by little, so he can get off the streets. He won't return to Seattle - it's too unfriendly, he said - but wants to find 'somewhere decent' to live in the Portland area.

Nearly every day, he logs on to craigslist.com and looks for an apartment to rent. Most are way beyond his means.

'I'll get there, it just takes time,' said Mike.

By the time the weather gets warmer this spring, Mike will be able to put away the 'arctic mummy bag' he sleeps in outdoors.

He still dreams of getting back on his feet and building up his resources to enjoy a good retirement.

'In five years I'd like to be doing normal, everyday things,' Mike said. 'Just the things most people take for granted.'


MORE RESOURCES

When the weather turns severe, below 28 degrees or above 98 degrees for two days in a row, several Washington County churches again plan to be open for overnight guests. It's best to call 211 to find out about schedules at individual facilities. In the meantime, there are a number of resources homeless people can turn to. They include:

Washington County Interfaith Committee on homeslessness:

Visit www.ahomeoftheirown.com or call Eric Canon at 503-357-3282.

n Washington County Department of housing services:

Information about affordable rental housing is available at 503-846-4794.

2008 'homeless connect' event:

The annual service fair for homeless people in Washington County is from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today at the Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District's athletic center, 15707 S.W. Walker Road, Beaverton. Visit www.co.washington.or.us for details.