Warming shelters to rely on volunteers to keep people sheltered on freezing nights

Following substantial funding cuts, the Salem Warming Network will again rely on volunteers to ensure that unsheltered people in the community have somewhere warm to sleep when temperatures dip below freezing this winter.

It can be the difference between life and death for hundreds of Salemites who struggle to stay sheltered during the cold months.

The service, managed by the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, operates warming centers throughout the community for overnight stays. At this point, given limited funding and volunteers, it’s planning to open roughly 30 beds at the ARCHES Day Center, located 615 Commercial St. N.E. 

Additional beds in the warming network will depend on the number of volunteers the network can get, said Program Manager Ashley Hamilton.

In past years, the network has included community partners. The largest is Salem First Presbyterian Church on 770 Chemeketa St. N.E. which can house about 75 people. Doing so requires 15 volunteers a night, according to a Facebook post from Pastor Greg Bolt.

Guests can stay overnight from when the shelter opens in the evening until the next morning, receiving hot drinks and snacks. People sleep on blue mats on the floor and can enter the shelter until it’s full.

Before the pandemic, the service operated on around $50,000 a year for supplies and electricity, and relied on volunteers. Executive Director Jimmy Jones said it was cheap, but since it was open only when it was below 28 degrees three nights in a row, not really adequate for the needs of the community. When, around 2018, the network started opening any night below freezing, they started mixing in paid employees.

Then the pandemic struck, and the service lost a good chunk of its volunteer base, which included a lot of elderly people who were concerned about risk of exposure to Covid.

“It absolutely devastated the volunteer base in the community,” he said. “It’s 75 people plus staff concentrated in a basement of a church for the most part. We don’t have great airflow, so it just felt very dangerous to a lot of volunteers.”

Starting in 2020, they shifted to all paid staff with funding from the state and city, and had a budget of over $1 million for the Salem area last winter. That money primarily came from the State’s Out of the Cold and State Homeless Assistance Programs.

“During COVID we only utilized paid staff for our warming shelters, so the 2020-2021 season. For the two seasons that followed we had a small handful of volunteer opportunities to supplement the work. But this was very limited. This season will be our first time we are back to a majority volunteer based model, closer to what we were doing pre-pandemic,” Hamilton said in a Tuesday email.

This year, an over 80% budget cut means that they’re again turning to largely relying on community volunteers. The action agency has around $200,000 it can dedicate to the service this year, with $150,000 going to Salem shelters from the city of Salem, and $50,000 to Polk County using state funds, according to data from the agency and the city.

Jones said Oregon Housing and Community Services, which distributes statewide shelter funding, has $24.3 million in reserve for sheltering services over the next two years, which he’s asked be made available to address the coldest months of the year.

“They probably have plans for some of that (money) but I’ve asked them to release half of it across the state so that we can make sure that all the sheltering that needs to get done is getting done,” he said.

It would have to happen soon, he said, given that it takes around 60 days to hire and train new staff. Since it’s mid-October, that would push them past the start of freezing temperatures that usually come around mid-December.

Without the resources, the shelters will rely almost entirely on volunteers. Hamilton said that if every volunteer took one shift, they’d need 300 people to keep warming centers open all winter.

Volunteers greet people at the front door of the centers, check people in, secure their belongings, place sleeping mats and do regular check-ins to make sure everyone has what they need. Volunteers also monitor security all hours of the night.

“There’s the morning shift. I always hated the morning shift the most because that’s the hardest for me, emotionally. You gotta get people up, get them moving,” sometimes before church activities start at 8 a.m., Jones said.

Paid staff will be there with the volunteers, in case greater needs arise. At minimum, Jones said they plan to open one warming shelter with as many volunteers as they can gather.

Salem has tripled its number of emergency homeless shelter beds in the last five years, which Jones said makes it a less desperate issue than it could have been, but that warming shelters are still needed for Salem’s most vulnerable.

“It’s, in a lot of ways, a much better situation than what we had five years ago. On the other hand, the people who rely on warming are frequently the ones that we struggle the most to get them into any kind of shelter capacity situation,” he said. Typically, around 200 people who typically have more mental health or sobriety issues stay at warming centers.

Last year, nearly every bed was full each night that the services opened, Hamilton said.

“The question that is still sort of unresolved in my mind is: will we have the capacity to do this at 32 degrees through the entire winter? And without additional financial support, I’m skeptical of that,” Jones said. 

The agency will be kicking off recruitment efforts with a volunteer informational session on Tuesday, Oct. 17, which will share what a day in a volunteer’s life looks like at the agency’s services.

“It’s about welcoming volunteers back into the fold with Community Action,” Hamilton said.

The event is at 6 p.m. at the Salem YMCA at 685 Court St. N.E., and will include a presentation and question and answer session about volunteering at the warming shelter, day center and mobile shower trailers. For questions, email [email protected] or visit the ARCHES Facebook Page

Clarification: This story has been updated with an additional quote from Ashley Hamilton to further clarify the transition from an all-paid staff during Covid to using more volunteers.

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.