Winter brings record activation numbers for warming centers

After a long, cold winter protecting the unsheltered in Eugene and Springfield, the operations of Egan Warming Centers have concluded. It was a record-setting season.

Between November and March, Egan shelter sites opened for 31 nights—the most in the program’s 14-year history. A network of 760 trained volunteers worked nearly 20,000 combined hours to operate seven different warming sites on nights when temperatures dropped below 30 degrees. That mark eclipsed the previous single-season record of 25 activations for the program, which formed in early 2009 after the Dec. 16, 2008 freezing death of a homeless man, Major Thomas Egan, in Eugene.

This winter didn’t bring enduring deep freezes like the one in which Maj. Egan succumbed from hypothermia, nor the harsh ice storms that have gripped Eugene-Springfield several other times in the past decade. Yet, a greater than usual number of sub-freezing nights this winter met the threshold for Egan activation. 

“Thirty-one nights is a new record, and a new challenge for us, but we shouldn’t forget that it was most challenging for the people we serve,” says Tim Black, SVdP’s winter strategies and emergency response coordinator. 

Black said he is constantly amazed at what Egan volunteers accomplish. Without them, there would be no warming centers, he said. 

The 2022-23 winter season was particularly trying coming out of the COVID pandemic. Many volunteers are elderly and still didn’t feel safe coming out. But hundreds did.

“We just don’t have enough volunteers or sites,” he said. “But I continue to feel thankful that we’re in a community that cares, and where many organizations work closely with St. Vincent de Paul and Egan. There’s a lack of resources, but no lack of compassion or effort. We also have some great new volunteers who stepped up into leadership positions; they’re organized, professional and upbeat, and their commitment and support are really inspirational.”

During an activation, volunteers open each warming center in the evening and operate it through the morning. They provide guests with sleeping pads and blankets, warm drinks and meals, heartwarming hospitality, basic first aid, and donations of gloves, socks and other winter gear needed to survive on the streets in winter.

Going forward, Black expects continuing challenges for Egan Warming Centers to secure and train enough volunteers so the program can be prepared for increasingly unpredictable cold seasons — and to identify additional new facilities for ongoing warming-site use.

The opioid addiction crisis affecting so many in the homeless population, worsened by the growing threat of dangerous fentanyl mixed with a variety of illicit drugs, also creates new complications for the Egan program and its volunteers. 

“It’s getting harder because we’re seeing increased drug abuse, increased trauma and increased numbers of people. And fentanyl is so prevalent; we had to administer Narcan on a number of occasions at our sites this season,” Black said, referring to the medication that can rapidly reverse an opioid overdose. “Thank goodness we have it and it works.”

Now, while he’s thankful for the opportunity to breathe a bit easier at the end of an exhausting cold season, Black hopes the community doesn’t forget the need to prepare for winter even through the blessedly warmer days of spring and summer.

“We can’t just sit around and wait until it’s cold again,” he says. “If anyone wants to find out more about volunteering, we’re happy to talk to people throughout the year, and will also accept donations of gloves and winter clothes all year. Because it will be cold again before we know it.”

Black said they’ve begun clearing out the warming sites in preparation for next winter. Volunteer recruitment will start in the fall.



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