A lack of volunteers may be a setback for a Umatilla County warming station, according to one of the station’s volunteers and board members.
Brodie Messenger of the Hermiston Warming Station, 1075 S. Highway 395, Hermiston, said the facility usually opens the Monday before Thanksgiving, which this year is Nov. 22, but only if the station can attract enough volunteers. Otherwise, he said, the station’s opening will be postponed until enough helpers sign on to serve.
Messenger, one of eight board members, stated this year’s delay in opening could be “a week or two,” based on the current numbers. The warming stations board plans to determine the schedule at an upcoming meeting.
The station has 33 volunteers, but it needs more than 100, Messenger said. Having more than 100 volunteers will give the board a sufficient pool of help.
The Hermiston Warming Station started in 2011, Messenger said, and its start was in local churches. Each week, during those early days, a different local church would act as the town’s warming station, he said. Then, as now, people without a permanent place to reside would come to the station for shelter, food and opportunities to clean themselves. The station has operated at the Highway 395 location since 2017.
A common problem
Other programs like the Hermiston Warming Station are facing shortages of volunteers, according to Paula Hall, CEO of Community Action Program of East Central Oregon.
Her organization operates the Promise Inn, a former motel converted into a transitional housing facility. Unlike a warming station, which is seasonal and open only when temperatures drop, the Promise Inn, 205 S.E. Dorion Ave., Pendleton, is open throughout the year.
The facility, which opened April 1, does not rely on volunteers, Hall said. Thanks to grant funding, the Promise Inn has paid staff, which includes a case manager, a street outreach worker and an onsite worker.
“Everyone who relies on volunteers, whether it is food banking or homeless services, are really struggling,” she said. “Primarily the volunteer pool are those who have retired and have more time to give to their community. Those are usually people who are older and more susceptible to COVID-19. And there goes your workforce.”
She said CAPECO “could not build a year-round shelter system on a volunteer base.”
The Pendleton Warming Station faces the same problem as its Hermiston counterpart. Dwight Johnson, executive director of Neighbor 2 Neighbor, the nonprofit that operates the station, said it will not open this year. Instead, the Pendleton Warming Station will offer motel vouchers to people in need as the weather grows colder
Johnson cited COVID-19 concerns and volunteer shortage for not opening the congregate shelter.
He said many of his volunteers are older people who are not volunteering now because of the pandemic. Right now, he has 100 volunteers, 20-25 active. Pre-pandemic, he had 40-45 active volunteers, which still made operation “challenging.”
A volunteer’s perspective
Messenger said, when he started volunteering, he was looking for a way to help his community.
“I saw it on Facebook, where they needed volunteers, and I had time, so I tried it out and actually really enjoyed it,” he said.
His favorite thing about his work is listening to the stories of the station’s guests. Through their stories, the guests have given him new perspective on life, he said. Where some people may see them as dangerous, Messenger expressed he has come to learn otherwise. He said he has gained empathy and understanding, as he has discovered that people are more or less the same, homeless or otherwise.
He said it is common for volunteers to visit with guests, as also they distribute toiletries, food and other resources. Volunteers may also launder clothes.
A guest’s experience
Messenger said the Hermiston Warming Station opens at 7:30 p.m. Guests have to ring the doorbell, and a volunteer lets them in. From there, guests fill out paperwork, if it is their first visit, and they listen to a reading of the house rules, he said.
They pick their bedding, set up their bed and store their possessions in a tote, he said. Guests then may use the bathroom and laundry machines to clean, and they can get something to eat from the kitchen, he said.
There is room in the station for sleeping — one men’s room, one women’s room and a third room for a family or overflow. The men’s room can fit eight men and the women’s room can fit four, Messenger said and the intake area has space for further overflow, if needed. The maximum occupancy is 24, but it would be uncomfortable for more than 18 guests to spend the night, Messenger said.
Messenger said the station on a typical night serves 11 guests. He said he remembers one time in which the station was too crowded for a guest. Two years ago, he said, one person had to be turned away.
False perceptions play a role
The Hermiston Warming Station is experiencing not only a shortage of volunteers but of funds. Grants and donations cover the station’s expenses. Donations, though, are low, he said, but he said he was not sure the reason.
He does have reasons for the drop in the number of volunteers, he said. He said he thinks COVID-19 is one cause.
Not that it has ever been easy to attract volunteers, he said. He admitted it is not very glamorous work, and it might seem dangerous to outsiders.
“People have false perceptions of it,” he said.
Policies, such as having multiple volunteers present during open hours, help keep volunteers safe, according to Messenger. Also, there are cameras set up throughout the house.
“No harm has ever come to anyone who has volunteered here,” Messenger said. The worst thing he said he could recall were arguments, he added.
Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston said “there have been no significant issues” at the station, though his department does receive calls and responds “from time to time.” In 2020, police were called 10 times to the warming station, according to a report from Edmiston, which cited reasons such as vandalism, trespassing and welfare checks.
In an email to The Hermiston Herald, the chief offered something for people to consider. He stated that, based on the increase in aggression he has seen toward police, he “would imagine the warming station staff is also interacting with some of these same people and though our officers receive extensive training in hand-to-hand combat and how to avoid contaminated scenes, things happen.”
Messenger also said people might also be worried about COVID-19 infection, but he added he was not aware of any outbreaks at the station. He said there was one “scare,” a recent guest who said he was COVID-19 positive but was not.
He said the station is strict about masks. Volunteers and guests must use masks when not sleeping or eating, he said. Also, the station makes frequent use of sanitizer and cleaning products, he said, and an outside cleaning service has been brought in to sanitize.