The City of Cottage Grove Pallet Shelter Warming Center. DANA MERRYDAY/ THE CHRONICLE

It has never been easy to be “without physical means” in Cottage Grove. Being a small town, anyone new is instantly noticed and comes under increased scrutiny. In snippets of city records from the past printed in the March 28, 1927 local newspaper, are these gems:

— 1890: “Opium smoking prohibited, Minors, women, Indians, and girls are not permitted to loiter in saloons.”

— 1894: “By motion the council declared against furnishing provisions for tramps ‘unless they earn it by work for the town at $1 a day.’”

— 1903: “Ball and chain purchased and tramps ordered to work on rock pile.”

Sounds like being at loose ends in the Grove wasn’t much of a picnic back in the day. Two things are evident from these blasts from the past. First, the value placed on work; one gains honor, status, and legitimacy. To have no physical means of support raises eyebrows and suspicions. Second, there are consequences for being between jobs and homeless. 

Life has a way of throwing people curveballs; severe illnesses, loss of job, death of a partner, disability or serious injury, sudden loss of housing. It often happens when you least can afford it and being caught without a safety net. One of the societal prices of capitalism is that you have to work for a living and if you don’t or can’t, you are pretty much on your own.

Life is what happens while you are making plans and sometimes it can be a cruel master. One locally unhoused person in her 70s had a verbal agreement with the landowner she rented from that she could stay there indefinitely. The owner’s heirs had other ideas and she found herself kicked off the property with no prospects of affordable housing in the offing. Looking through social media there is still some animosity for folks who, for whatever reason, are down on their luck. In some cases it is due to untreated mental illness and addiction problems, but there are plenty of hard-luck stories out there that are true. 

Cottage Grove’s Pallet Shelter Warming Center, view to the East. DANA MERRYDAY/PHOTO

In 2009 a group of compassionate humans, which included churches, civic groups, government and social service agencies, and many public-minded volunteers came together to provide shelter for unhoused people on the coldest nights. They called themselves “Beds for Freezing Nights.” The impetus coalescing this group was homeless veteran Major Thomas Egan freezing to death in the streets of Eugene.  

Like many other aspects of life, Covid dealt BFN a harsh blow. Its whole model relied on close quarters, dormitory-style rooming and volunteers who tended to be elderly. After much discussion, it suspended services for the 2020-21 winter.

Cottage Grove used some of its Covid relief funds to purchase a portable shelter system from “Pallet Shelters.” This socially conscious company’s shelters can be used for emergency housing for cases of weather emergencies such as “snowpocalypse” in addition to providing shelter to unhoused people in need when the mercury falls below freezing. The city installed infrastructure to set up a shelter village on city land across from the corporate yard next to Safeway. For the past two years the City has assisted the cold night shelter efforts by setting up the facilities and providing utilities and services.

Last year the local nonprofit Community Sharing stepped in to manage the Pallet Shelter Village. It was a learning curve and luckily it turned out to be a particularly mild winter requiring only a few activations. Normally, sustained temperatures at 29 degrees or below activate the shelter under the BFN model.

This year BFN and Community Sharing are in communication about how each can assist the effort. BFN Executive Director Ruth Linoz said “We surveyed our members and while we encourage our volunteers who feel safe to sign up through Community Sharing and help out, we are not doing anything formally at this time. We are trying to stay out of their way for now but we don’t know what the future looks like but hope to work together in the coming time.”

Mike Fleck, Director of Community Sharing, who will be responsible for operating the cold nights shelter this year, spoke with me concerning the coming winter season. “Normally the season for operating the Warming Center is from Nov. 1 until March 31. We are not quite ready to run due to getting our staffing in place, but fortunately we haven’t had very cold temperatures. We are still looking for a few paid position staffers. To volunteer just requires the desire to help out. We are requiring that they be vaccinated and to wear masks while on duty.” The shower trailer operates from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. on Wednesday at the Birch Avenue location and volunteers are needed to help operate that, he said. Call CS at 541-942-2176 for more information.

“Another thing is that we are changing the activation temperature to 32 degrees. It was 29, but we have noticed that there have been some miserable, cold rainy days when people really needed shelter but it was not quite cold enough to officially activate. We will be using the same three-day activation notice system as in the past. When our weather watchers see that predicted temperatures would reach activation level, they will notify volunteers 72 hours in advance,” Fleck said.

In addressing a perennial concern from the community (and not just here but in cities everywhere), Fleck responded, “If you offer services, people will come from Eugene or other places. That just hasn’t been our experience. We serve almost exclusively local unhoused people or folks who have broken down on I-5.” He mentioned that the Pallet Shelter is one of the few rural facilities in Lane County; the others are in the Eugene/Springfield area with one in Florence. Fleck further referred me to the TAC Report commissioned by Lane County and the City of Eugene.

This study happened in 2018. TAC stands for Technical Assistance Collaborative, headquartered in Boston, which was paid to examine the burgeoning population of the unhoused in Lane County. Coincidentally, the Sept. 4, 2018 9th Circuit Court Decision Martin vs. Boise, affirmed that the state may not “criminalize conduct that is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless – namely sitting, lying, or sleeping on the streets” when there are more homeless persons than available shelter beds or alternatives. This puts the local government in a tight spot. If you don’t offer some place to go, there is no way to prevent unhoused people from sleeping on public land. 

I had a quick read through the 38-page report. There are revealing observations therein. A summation of the stats from the report jumped out at me: “Lane County demographic data describes a county population that is older, more disabled, and less employed than other parts of the state. Perhaps in part because of these characteristics, the data paints Lane County strikingly poorer than several other Oregon counties (including Portland!), the rest of Oregon, and the United States as a whole.” 

Another product of the TAC study was a road map to address the unhoused. The idea is to try and break the cycle of serial homelessness. There was a five-year goal set to reduce the homeless population by transitioning into housing. In reviewing local newspaper accounts, all parties concede that the response is a bit behind. Covid, supply-chain problems, and the lack of finding qualified service providers to operate facilities have been just a few of the roadblocks. 

The space here is too small to take on an issue often described as too large for local government alone. 

Regardless of your philosophy or view toward the unhoused if you have some compassion in you heart and time available, primarily in the evening or at night, consider volunteering to help with the cold night shelters, perhaps one of the people you meet might change your view on things and remind you how fortunate you are and that “there but for the grace of God go I.” 

Call 541-942-2176 to volunteer.

Email: [email protected]