Nine bitterly cold nights bring homeless men to Forest Grove shelter
John Wedell pushes his shopping cart through the front doors of the Forest Grove United Church of Christ, shivering.
Too, too cold tonight, says the citys most well-known homeless person as he signs into the churchs severe-weather shelter. Oregon is cold tonight.
Yes, it is, John, says one of the shelters two staffers that night.
Another man, Jack, who describes his age as mid-fifties, says he usually sleeps in his car in lighted parking lots, but the single-digit temperatures drew him to the shelter. It got like living in a tuna can, he says.
In the churchs kitchen, a man dressed in torn, faded jeans with beat-up white sneakers and a lightweight jacket gives a different reason for why he likes the UCC shelter so much: They let me cook my own food, he says as he stirs a chowderlike substance in a pot on the stove.
With temperatures plunging, a steady stream of people made their way to the Forest Grove UCC from Dec. 2 to 10.
The church is one of only two severe-weather shelters in western Washington County, opening its doors when temperatures drop below freezing or above 90 degrees for a few days in a row.
A shelter at Sonrise Church in Hillsboro offers a severe-weather "plus" plan, opening for 90 days straight each winter, regardless of the weather, but also responding to severe temperatures outside that schedule.
In the southeast part of the county, three different churches rotate nights, sheltering homeless people once a week during the winter, also opting to open longer during temperature extremes.
It is stressful enough having to be in a homeless situation to begin with, then having to face freezing cold temperatures on top of it doesnt help these men, said FGUCC Pastor Jennifer Yocum.
Although the shelter is open to people of all ages, including men, women and families, it is populated almost entirely by single men.
This matches a trend seen in the Washington County Homelessness Assessment Report from September 2011, which showed a growing number of single homeless males aged 18 to 23 and 55 to 69, even as it identified families as the largest homeless population.
The report shows the two biggest factors for homelessness are unemployment and unaffordable housing, said Annette Evans, Washington County homeless program coordinator. But that doesnt give us a hard reason for this trend.
I am homeless because of my divorce," said the man stirring his soup. "I lost everything and now I have to sleep in the woods, or under porches.
I get angry a lot of the time because I cant get into transitional programs, he added. I am not on drugs, dont have an alcohol problem, a family to support with me or mental issues. There are waiting lists for housing for single men that go from six months to a year. Some of us cant wait that long.
Jack, who said he used to work in construction, agrees. I have been sober for five years now. Does it matter, though? No. I dont have an address. I go through trash cans for bottles for money. The government doesnt care. Nobody cares.
Their temporary home at the UCC is a large room with two couches, a television, table and meals brought in by volunteers. Families can stay in classrooms, separate from the common room where the single men sleep. The kitchen remains open till 9:30 p.m. and lights are usually out by 10 p.m.
The church aims for a ratio of at least one volunteer for every nine shelter guests, as recommended by the county's Department of Housing Services.
Over the shelters nine straight days of operation this month, attendance ranged from four to 17.
It is really hit-or-miss as far as how many people will show up, said Shane Feuerbach, a student at Pacific University who has staffed the shelter as part of his work-study program for two years.
On nights like tonight, where we think it will be busy, only a few guys come by. We never really know, he said Saturday, Dec. 7, when only four people showed up.
We are on call here, Feuerbach said. I prefer working at the church over the university because it is quiet and I can concentrate on writing papers and studying for finals. Plus nobody ever really causes any problems.
While there is no background screening, the UCC maintains a no-violence policy and shelter guests must sign a waiver for insurance purposes.
There is also a banned list of those whove broken rules or caused problems in the past and are not allowed to return. This helps maintain a semblance of calm throughout the premises.
In addition to food and warmth, We offer the populace seeking shelter a tranquil environment, Yocum said. We want the people to feel safe here.
Thats apparently how Wedell feels. Within 15 minutes of walking through the doors, he is asleep, with all his possessions, on the couch in the front lobby.
Meanwhile, the man in the kitchen stirs his thick white soup and adds to his list of reasons he likes coming to this shelter.
They are very inviting to everyone, he says. "They don't judge me here."
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