The proposed plan is to create a village with the shelters on city property behind the post office, where the limb dump has been held.DANA MERRYDAY/THE CHRONICLE

Major Thomas Egan was a sensitive and conflicted man. Bright, highly educated, and proud, he refused to ask for, or accept help, even from well-meaning friends. Although he was eligible for Social Security and a military pension he chose to go it alone and try and make it on his own. A penchant for drink made him ineligible for most Veterans Administration assistance programs. His tentative grasp on housing fell through and he became homeless. In December 2008 his frozen body was found covered in snow at the corner of West 1st and Blair in Eugene.

The shock that someone who had honorably served his country for 20 years would meet such a fate moved the community to ensure that no one should ever again lose their life to freezing cold.

The result was a gathering of interested parties: religious groups, Eugene and Springfield governments, churches, nonprofits, and individuals. The model they worked out became the Egan Warming Center, administered by St. Vincent de Paul. Volunteers were trained and ready to be activated when the average temperatures dropped below 30 degrees. Various institutions provide the physical space to set up overnight stays for the unhoused, who need to get out of the cold.

Before Egan’s death, interested parties in Cottage Grove had been struggling with the same idea of compassionately providing a respite from the cold for our homeless residents. They had already done some organizing and made preliminary plans when the cold took Egan’s life. This event and seeing how Eugene/Springfield responded pushed the organizers into action. As a result, the local nonprofit Beds for Freezing Nights (BFN) came out of this tragedy.

BFN was a broad coalition of church leaders, city officials, community social service organizations, and caring public-minded individuals. They coalesced in October 2009 and took the name Beds for Freezing Nights.

After recruiting and training teams of volunteers BFN secured space in Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, with First Presbyterian Church serving as a backup space for guests. Volunteers would assist in setting up the dormitory-style array of cots for guests with blankets, warm drinks, and other items to aid in their comfort. 

PHOTO PROVIDED An inside look at one of the homes.

BFN activation period was agreed to be from Nov. 15 through the end of March. The group set up a team to monitor the weather forecasts. To open, temperatures had to fall to 29 degrees or below for six hours or more and they have enough volunteers to staff the center. The team’s goal is to try to predict these conditions ahead of time and be able to send out 72-, 48-, and 24-hour activation notices to the volunteers. It was often confusing to both guests and volunteers alike to experience cold rainy weather and not find BFN open. The temperature had to be expected to be below 29 degrees for six hours or more to activate.

The model of having guests from different social groups all in a common room, mixing with volunteers in this time of the pandemic was a concern for BFN. Especially since many of the most regular volunteers are retired, up in years, and in the most vulnerable group when it comes to the Coronavirus.

At the BFN Board meeting of Sept. 28, after much heartfelt discussion, the board made the tough call and sent out this word to its volunteers, “Since there is no real way to move forward safely and securely we have decided to become inactive this season in lieu of finding safer ways to continue serving the community in a similar capacity. Before deciding on a definite plan of action board members are pursuing leads and researching various methods of help we could provide. Once we have set the method we will be reaching out to you again to not only let you know but hopefully have ways you can be involved.”

Leaders of BFN sat down with members of the Cottage Village Coalition, Community Sharing, representatives from the City and Lane County, and other stakeholders to see what alternatives they could come up with to serve those who needed a warm place on cold nights. One idea that was kicked around was an open-air tent city. That way ventilation, social distancing, and separating groups would be much easier. However, heating, water leaks, dampness, and wind would be issues.  

PHOTO PROVIDED The exterior and front door.

What came out of these sessions was a possible solution: Pallet Shelters. Pallet, a company based in Everett, Wash., banners a bold claim across its website: “We’re a different type of company. We’re a social purpose company.” The site clarifies this claim in these terms: “Unlike traditional companies, which exist to maximize profits, a social purpose company pursues social purpose goals to make the world a better place. Pallet has two social purpose goals: Goal 1: end unsheltered homelessness & Goal 2: develop a nontraditional workforce.”

To meet Goal 2, the Pallet Company seeks to exclusively hire people who have struggled with homelessness, addiction, and incarceration. It offers employees three levels of support. The first is training in manufacturing skills, they learn on the job to make the product that will help people who find themselves in the same shoes that they have formerly worn. Second, the company helps its employees develop their life skills, each week professionals visit with the employees and assist in helping them set up bank accounts, get ID, and otherwise navigate hurdles that make re-entering society so difficult. Last, the company helps employees when life happens and they need personal support to help make it through personal challenges when they arise.

Their shelter product is made from a strong aluminum and composite material combination that is sturdy, structurally strong and can be set up in about 30 minutes. They come in two models, a 64- and 100-square-foot floor plan. Part of the appeal of these structures is that besides being easily and quickly assembled, is that they can handle up to 110 mph winds and heavy snowfall. They can be put up and taken down at least 40 times during their lifetimes and stored easily. Their materials make them mold- and rot-proof, a big advantage in our climate and are easy to clean and sanitize.  

On the human side, features of the Pallet Shelters are the ability to lock the structure, safe heat, folding cots for up to four occupants, CO monitors and fire extinguishers, shelves and the ability to house families, including pets, together.

The virtual City Council meeting on Monday, Oct. 26 drew a record number of participants in the online forum as well as some in-person folks showing up at City Hall. Having the Beds For Freezing Nights on the agenda drew many stakeholders to sign in to participate and offer their support of the City proceeding in investing in these innovative shelters.  

 City Manager Richard Meyers pitched the idea of the City acquiring a total of 18 Pallet Shelters as a way to provide a safe alternative setting to offer BFN services to the unhoused. Also the shelters would serve as a resource for the City to respond to future emergency situations. For example in case of a fire similar to the ones experienced in the McKenzie Valley happening locally, these shelters could be quickly erected to serve evacuees. The snowmageddon of a few years past was another time when shelter was needed to aid local citizens cut off from power, heat, and water.

The proposed plan is to create a village using the shelters on city property behind the post office where the limb dump has been held. There is water and sewage access there now and recent work graded the area and made it level, ready to receive the shelters. 

Since the Pallet shelters do not contain sanitary features, that will be provided by porta potties, handwashing facilities and a mobile shower trailer.

The main costs for the shelters, around $100,000 would come from COVID-19 funds already received by the City and which must be spent by the end of this year. Additional costs for site preparation and rentals are expected to be assisted through Lane County.

The plan is that volunteers from BFN and other groups will operate from the Pallet shelters and follow the previous activation temperature requirements.

While most input at the City Council was supportive, there were a few concerns of residents not wanting services near their neighborhood, and worries that if you build it they (the unhoused) will come. Many of the organizers and volunteers that have worked with BFN in the past sought to reassure those with concerns that it has not been a problem in the past and that compassion is tantamount in wishing to provide these services.

The City Council passed the motion unanimously, clearing the way for both to provide for our neediest Grovers when the mercury drops but also providing a lasting legacy of Thomas Egan’s memory, hopefully ensuring such a tragedy never happens here.

The Pallet Shelters are due to arrive on Nov. 23, and should be set up and ready to go by Dec. 1. The Shelter Village will be operating on the same activation temperature conditions as the BFN.  

With many of the regular BFN volunteers not able to serve due to Covid concerns it is essential that volunteers are able to step up to help provide this compassionate service. If you would like to be a part of helping someone stay warm this winter you can contact community coordinator Teresa Cowan at 541-942-1185. You will sleep better for it. 

Email: [email protected]