Center opened for seven nights in a row last weekend; volunteers always needed

The Columbia County Warming Center opened its doors to those in need for seven days in a row as temperatures dropped below freezing and a mix of snow, ice and freezing rain fell upon the Pacific Northwest earlier this week.

The center, which offers a warm place to sleep, eat, shower and wash laundry for people who are homeless in Columbia County, was open nightly from Dec. 20 through Dec. 26, making one of the longest stretches the center it has been open so far this winter.

On average, 10 people have been staying overnight at the shelter, while a small handful of others have come in for short periods to have a meal, get warm, charge their electronics or wash laundry, but then leave for the evening to sleep elsewhere, shelter coordinator Heather Johnson explained.

Johnson works as the Community Action Team's emergency housing program manager and Warming Center coordinator.

While numbers have been steady, Johnson said staff was expecting to see more people utilize the shelter.

Johnson said it's possible many people are finding temporary housing for the night with friends or family. Some may not be able to travel to the shelter, while others may not want to be there at all, Johnson explained, and those people may hunker down when temperatures drop or find shelter in homeless community encampments.

Staffing the shelter overnight is heavily dependent on the availability of volunteers and, occasionally, CAT staff members.

A pool of more than 40 volunteers have been trained to help staff the shelter, but when the center is open for multiple nights in a row it can be a strain on those who volunteer often. Johnson said it can be especially difficult to find volunteers who can work the 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. shifts as many volunteers also work day jobs, and spending that time volunteering can be physically draining.

The best way to combat that is to build up a solid pool of volunteers, Johnson indicated. The more volunteers that can be on call, the easier it is to spread out the work so the responsibilities don't fall to the same people over and over again, especially when cold spells move in and the center is open multiple nights in a row.

The shelter was unable to open on a cold night once this season due to lack of volunteers able to work.

Although the shelter has been open for multiple nights and has served a number of people, Johnson said they are not in need of supply donations at this time.

For more information about the shelter or to volunteer, contact Johnson at 503-366-6559.

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