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Vancouver’s winter homeless shelters face shortage of volunteers

As the volunteer-run Winter Hospitality Overflow shelter program enters its 17th season, it’s facing a shortage of volunteers.

Jane Seidel pointed to the abundance of opportunities to help homeless people during winter — whether it’s volunteering at a severe weather shelter, providing outreach or organizing a coat drive — as a reason that the volunteer base is spread thin.

“There are many more opportunities for folks, and that’s a good thing,” said Seidel, one of the site coordinators at St. Andrew Lutheran Church. “There are lots of other ways that people can become involved in this continuing problem of homelessness.”

The Winter Hospitality Overflow or WHO shelters at St. Andrew in east Vancouver and St. Paul Lutheran Church downtown are open every night between Nov. 1 and the end of March. It’s a feat requiring a massive amount of people power. Last winter, volunteers served 11,237 hours between the two locations.

The WHO program initially intended to start later than normal this year due to a lack of volunteers. However, staff with the nonprofit Share stepped in to cover the first few weeks of November. They’re available because one of Share’s family shelters, Orchards Inn, is closed for remodeling, which means there is less year-round shelter space this winter for homeless families. Vancouver Housing Authority, the building’s owner, was struggling to secure contractors for the project, which is envisioned to be done by the end of January.

When that shelter reopens, Share’s other family shelter, Hazel Dell Homestead, will close for remodeling.

While overnight WHO shelters have traditionally been staffed by volunteers from faith-based groups, the organization has increasingly looked to businesses and other groups for help. For the last few years, employees from LSW Architects have covered a shift. And last year, the La Center boys basketball team and their coaches volunteered at St. Paul.

“I would love to see businesses take advantage. I think they bring a lot that we have yet to tap,” said Carrie Thatcher, another St. Andrew site coordinator.

She said there’s a common misconception that something religious is happening at the WHO because the shelters are hosted by churches. But, religious affiliation or no affiliation, it doesn’t matter.

“You’re just working with people who are cold and have kids and are elderly or emotionally bankrupt or whatever the things are that brought them there,” Thatcher said. “And so there isn’t any preaching, there isn’t any passing along cards or proselytizing.”

In some cases, former WHO guests return as volunteers, giving back the service that was once provided to them.

“They understand that being able to stay here at St. Andrew or St. Paul truly is the difference between, you know, not sleeping or being extraordinarily cold,” said Kate Budd, executive director of Council for the Homeless. “The WHO does offer that safe and warm space where you can actually get a decent night’s sleep.”

Amy Reynolds, deputy director at Share, pointed out that there are a number of seniors who are retiring from volunteer work.

“We need the next generation to be jumping in and helping with those philanthropic efforts,” said Reynolds who recently spoke with Washington State University Vancouver students about getting involved.

Family groups, Boys Scouts, bunco clubs — all are welcome to volunteer at a WHO shelter. Those interested in volunteering can check the WHO Facebook page for opportunities. St. Paul takes in single men while St. Andrew shelters couples, families with children and women. The two shelters served 691 adults and 72 children over 151 nights last winter.

For many guests, the church becomes their home for the whole season.

“That continuity of five months is life altering,” Thatcher said. Volunteers take on tasks such as laying out food and turning the lights off at night and on in the morning. “That’s where volunteers are crucial so that you can keep those doors open.”

Seidel said the shelter helps reduce the chaos in people’s lives. After they get comfortable and fall into a routine of coming to the shelter each night, they may have the head space to start thinking about employment or talking with an engagement specialist or otherwise making changes to get on a pathway to housing.

The shelter system is increasingly seeing more elderly people and those with disabilities or other health concerns. Thatcher said a couple of cancer patients stayed at St. Andrew last winter.

Just how busy local winter shelters will be is partly dependent on people knowing what’s open and partly dependent on how cold it is outside.

Budd said last winter the community was fortunate that nobody died from hypothermia.

“That is the goal of all of us to make sure that no one passes away as a result of the weather,” she said.

Budd expects the WHO shelters to fill up as usual. Last winter’s occupancy rate was 94 percent.

Additional severe weather shelters will open at a handful of sites (Immanuel Lutheran Church, Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church, Living Hope Church and the Washougal Community Center) when the temperature drops below 32 degrees or there is snow or freezing rain in the forecast. Permanent year-round shelters are filled first, then the WHO shelters and then severe weather beds are used as an emergency, stopgap option. During winter, 211info maintains a list of warming centers and severe weather shelters.

Last winter, severe weather shelters were prompted to open 49 times. They served 334 unduplicated guests. Budd said she’s still interested in finding additional facilities to host severe weather shelters, particularly in north Clark County.

It’s too early to tell exactly what the weather will be like this winter and just how often those emergency beds will be used.

While the National Weather Service in Portland deals primarily with seven-day forecasts, it receives long-term predictions from the College Park, Md.-based Climate Prediction Center. Amanda Bowen, meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the current forecast from the Climate Prediction Center says temperatures this winter will be slightly above normal.

“It doesn’t mean that it can’t snow or won’t snow or won’t be cold,” Bowen said.



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