Homeless activists offer training for shelter volunteers, call for neighborhood-based shelters

East Portland needs more emergency shelter space and volunteers staff, said Pastor Steve Kimes, who helps organize an emergency warming shelter at Anawim Christian Community, located at 196th and Glisan.

Kimes is offering a two-hour training for volunteers to staff warming shelters on Thursday 1/26 (FB event) at East County Church of Christ. He organized the training after the City of Portland offered to open community centers as warming shelters during the recent cold weather snap if neighborhoods could staff them.

Due to the sub-freezing temperatures and foot of snow Portland was hit with earlier this month, five people have died on Portland’s streets this winter— and there are many months until the potential for dangerously cold weather passes.

The city opens warming shelters when the temperature drops below freezing, but you’ll notice on the map below that most are located in downtown, closer-in Portland or in far East County and Gresham. (Taken from 211 data, the interactive map where the image below was sourced is regularly updated during severe weather.)

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Jennie Shaver, who heads Montavilla Neighborhood Association‘s committee on Housing and Homelessness, said the City expected a lot from neighbors on short notice. Along with providing volunteers, neighbors had to have a security guard and a manager with paid experience working with the homeless. Shaver said she has lots of experience working with the homeless, but none of it paid.

When she realized the community center wasn’t an option, Shaver reached out to Saints Peter and Paul Episcopal Church, where she volunteers with Rahab Sisters, a women’s support organization. The church deacon made an emergency decision to host the shelter.

Only Mt. Scott Community Center met the City’s criteria and opened as a warming shelter, she said, and American Legion Post 134 on Alberta Street hosted a shelter as well.

Peter and Paul’s has been wanting to offer more services to the community, but Mak Kastelic, director of music ministry and church building curator, said they just didn’t have the resources. “But to have the neighborhood come in with its own energy, organization, and people, it was perfect,” he said. “At least we have the building.”

The entire shelter was organized in 36 hours, Shaver said. When the call for help was put out, 60 volunteers stepped up at the end of the first day, the schedule organized with a Google doc. At the end of the fourth night of having the shelter open, 80 blankets had been donated, along with supplies and every bite of food to feed about 40 guests a night.

Organizers tried to have three volunteers on site throughout the night, and each started their shift with a ten minute orientation. Homeless folks were dropped off by the police and fire department, and the shelter was listed on 211. Generally, everything ran pretty smooth, Shaver said, crediting community volunteers.

Shaver sounded disappointed with the City of Portland’s efforts. She said they didn’t help with community outreach, they just made demands. And when the volunteers asked for bus tickets to help their guests the next day, they were denied.

In the four years he’s been living in the neighborhood, Kastelic said he’s been impressed with what the Montavilla neighborhood can accomplish, and he points to the organizing of the warming shelter is another example of that.

The church plans on being available as a warming shelter regularly, and is also considering hosting a cooling shelter in the summer. Kastelic credits neighborhood leaders Ben Kerensa and Shaver for doing the heavy lifting to make the shelter happen, and says the church needs do more planning to be prepared for next time.

Kastelic also said it blows his mind that there isn’t more shelter capacity in Montavilla. Now that their shelter is closed, people have to go all the way across town to  find a bed.

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Back before the call to staff warming shelters went out from the City and there was still a foot of snow on the ground, I called the churches hosting warming shelters, hoping to learn what they did to be approved to host one. I didn’t get reach anyone immediately at Anawin or Imago Dei Community, but when I called American Legion Post 134 the phone was answered on the second ring.

I asked Seth Grant, who served as a medic when he was enlisted and volunteers at the post, if there were any issues with insurance or government permits that they had to work through before opening their doors.

“Nah, we just did it,” Grant said casually.

They opened the shelter Wednesday, 1/4 with volunteers from the neighborhood as well as veterans. He said there were some problems expected when you put people with drugs and psycho-social issues in a cramped space, but he said the military mindset worked in their favor.

“You have to address it directly. You’re in our house,” Grant said about stopping an argument between two guests. He told them: “You can tame your shit or hit the bricks.”

A few city and fire department officials came by to inspect their building, and Grant said the fire marshal installed the required smoke alarms herself. A mental health care provider gave the shelter’s volunteers, who were mostly veterans, a crash course on how to identify and manage people with mental illnesses. He said they hadn’t reached out to learn how the shelter impacts their insurance, but would at some point.

Along with the warming shelter, Grant said they’ve pushed out several pickup trucks full of clothes for residents of Bud Clark Commons. With movies playing and a bar, the environment is unlike most shelters, he said.

The service work has been therapeutic for the veterans as well as the guests. After combat, it’s hard for veterans to recreate their tribe and purpose that was once so clear in a war zone. Service work gives them that, Grant said.

“We took a vow to serve country. Just because the [military] unit is gone, it doesn’t take the desire to serve,” Grant said. “Why aren’t others [legion halls] doing this, and churches, whose base tenant take care of fellow man, why aren’t they doing this? We are one of few non-city resources doing this… it’s unacceptable.”

Somewhere between inspiring and shaming, Grant said we can get more groups stepping up to serve the community.

Post 134’s mission statement, and home to this amazing image:

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Mike Pullen, communications coordinator for Multnomah County, wrote that no one is turned away from shelters in severe weather— even if they have to be transported to another shelter with available space. On the night of Sunday 1/15, he said they had a record 807 people in warming shelters overnight, and that’s over and above the 1,200 beds in our year round and winter shelters.
He wrote: “We prefer to use spaces that have already been approved as shelters, because it is faster and more efficient to bring them on line. These include churches and fraternal halls and public buildings. Basically, they need to be safe for large groups to overnight in, so the fire marshal needs to do a walk through to check fire exits and our staff make sure that bathrooms are sufficient and in working order.”
The training Kimes is hosting will give volunteers what they need to know to volunteer a shelter, and it will also go through the basics on how an organization can host a emergency shelter. Kimes has been hosting a emergency shelter in Gresham for five years. He said it took them about a year to work through the process to get opened.
From conversations with other organizations, he said that Gresham’s permitting is more involved, but with Portland, it’s less clear what’s expected. Kimes said organizations need to be persistent, and that he thinks both Gresham and Portland are willing to work with those wanting to host a emergency shelter.
If neighbors can’t make the training Thursday, Kimes said he’d be willing to host another if the interest is there. The best advice he’d give to volunteers of a shelter: keep a positive attitude and show the guest respect. On the church’s web page is a four-part series called Intro to Help the Homeless, presented by Kimes, who has been working with the homeless for 22 years.
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