Portland opens emergency warming shelter for families of any age, size

From the Oregonian, December 13 2008

Jean DeMaster, executive director of Human Solutions

Jean DeMaster, executive director of Human Solutions

Sylvia Smith thought life had never been so cruel as when she got evicted in August, couldn’t get another place to stay and had to live in a pickup with her three children and new granddaughter. At least, she comforted herself, her family was together.

But when summer’s warmth gave way to winter’s chill, Smith saw even that slipping away.

She couldn’t afford the gas to keep the truck’s heat on, and her battery would die if she kept the light on too long.

Smith, 38, went to homeless shelters that served families only to be told they were too full or didn’t permit teenage boys and so wouldn’t take her 14-year-old son. Smith made the tough decision to let her older son, daughter and granddaughter stay with friends while she and her younger son went to a shelter.

“It’s been a nightmare,” Smith said. “My family is split up.”

Smith’s story mirrors a growing number of local families that Multnomah County and the city of Portland want to help with a new emergency warming center that opened Monday night. It serves all homeless families — parents, grandparents, same-sex couples with children 17 or younger.

The center at 1435 N.E. 81st Ave., is open from 7 p.m. to 7a.m. seven days a week through April. It can serve about 20 families a night and will provide bassinets for infants younger than 2.

The shelter, operated by the nonprofit Human Solutions is no-frills — army-green cots sit two-by-two in a room with stark white walls. There are no televisions, no kitchen, no eating utensils. There are bathrooms, but no showers. Still, families with nowhere else to go can spend the night indoors.

The city and county combined to put up $300,000 to fund the center and another emergency shelter for homeless adults that will open downtown in coming weeks (the location and date will decided soon).

The county faces one of its largest budget cuts because of the recession but will spend the money as increasing numbers of residents find themselves in financial straits, commission Chairman Ted Wheeler said.

Other shelters for homeless families are full, said Jean DeMaster, executive director of Human Solutions. “Families are in the cold, and no child should have to stay outside,” she said.

DeMaster has never witnessed such large-scale need in the 30 years she’s worked with homeless people, she said.

“I’ve not seen the number of people coming in asking for food or a place to stay, saying, ‘We’re so hungry. We can’t think,'” she said. About 700 families have nowhere to stay indoors, the county Human Services Department found in a recent count.

The shelter has the money to provide a place to stay and keep the heat on, but needs other things: The refrigerator sat empty just hours before the shelter was to open, and a small stack of pillows and blankets near a door was expected to run out before the shelter reached capacity.

DeMaster hopes the community will help fill in the gap.