Unlicensed, home-based shelter cuts into numbers served at Forest Grove UCC

The shelter helps out hundreds of people a year.Until yesterday, the forecast for the only severe-weather homeless shelter in far western Washington County was cloudy with a chance of closure.

That’s because after operating largely via volunteers the last five years, the Forest Grove United Church of Christ-based shelter was experiencing staffing and census conundrums.

But at least part of that prognostication changed Tuesday, June 17, with a new collaboration between the UCC and its neighbor, Pacific University.

“We have identified an intern who’ll be coordinating the shelter and community relations for the coming year,” said Rev. Jennifer Yocum, pastor of the FGUCC. “We’re delighted with this extended and expanded partnership with Pacific.”

Still, Yocum expressed a desire to eventually hand over the reins of the shelter.

“We had hoped that by this point there would be another place in Forest Grove or Cornelius to host the shelter,” she said. “There’s been conversation about that, but it’s in the blue-sky planning stage.”

By the time temperatures rise above 90 degrees this summer or dip below 32 degrees next winter — baseline conditions for opening the shelter’s doors — it looks as though the clouds of uncertainty will have dissipated.

Yocum connected with Melissa Viera from Pacific’s work-study office to create a year-long administrative support internship for the shelter. She’s also conversing with Don Schweitzer from the school’s Department of Social Work about a practicum or senior project to gird up the overnight-staffing roster.

For four years, between 2008 and 2012, an average of four to six people stayed the night at the FGUCC when temperatures dropped below freezing. During last December’s ice and snow storm, there were as many as 18 folks sleeping in the church’s fellowship hall on a single night after eating a hot meal prepared by church members or other volunteers.

In the height of winter, however, while Yocum was on sabbatical, the average dropped to one or two guests per night — perhaps due in part to an unlicensed shelter operated last winter by Peter and Martha Neils on Camino Drive in northwest Forest Grove.

The Neilses, said Capt. Mike Herb of the Forest Grove Police Department, “wanted to house the homeless year-round,” advertising on Craigslist and attracting a number of people to their property. Some stayed in an RV and some in a tool NEWS-TIMES FILE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Forest Grove United Church of Christ pastor Jennifer Yocum is attempting to mitigate administrative and staffing challenges at the UCCs severe-weather shelter in time for its sixth season. “There were clear code and ordinance violations that would have taken place had they continued to do so.”

Their actions, added Herb, “although with good intentions, placed them and [their] neighbors in danger with the practice of seeking strangers on Craigslist.”

Meanwhile, the attendance nosedive at the FCUCC caused Yocum to wonder about the cost-benefit ratio. “In January and February our census dropped to the floor,” she said. “Moving forward, it’s hard. It’s a lot of work.”

UCC members Tori Eaton, Tim Orr and Eric Canon championed the church shelter when it launched, often staying overnight themselves to supervise and attend to guests. The first few winters it was open as many as 40 nights, Yocum said, and “burned through volunteers.”

Eaton, now a clinical instructor in Pacific’s School of Occupational Therapy, took over the administrative function at the shelter for several years while she was in graduate school, recruiting students to help staff it. Last year, though, with Eaton out of the picture, Yocum found it difficult to maintain the shelter’s formerly committed bench of volunteers.

“It’s becoming harder and harder to get schedules to coordinate,” she said.

The number of shelter users is also a factor, because it costs money to keep the heat turned up and the lights on. “Shelter operations are a big impact on the church, and it’s hard to maintain enthusiasm for the project if we’re serving so few people.”

Yocum has been “actively looking for a partner to step up” and take over hosting an emergency shelter for three years — to no avail. So she’s glad to have a partner in Pacific.

“On those frozen nights,” she said, “I can’t sleep if I know there’s no place to come in from the cold.”

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