By Christopher Lucia for Eugene Daily News
Four years ago this month, Eugene lost a well-liked and popular member of its homeless community. Thomas Egan, an Army veteran, went to a local homeless shelter on the third night of an extended cold spell. Because Egan was under the influence of alcohol -–a violation of the shelter’s rules– staff turned him away at the door.
Egan curled up that night on a street corner in the Whitaker Neighborhood of Eugene, where he passed away from exposure to sub-freezing temperatures. Frustrated at losing a respected member of the homeless community, volunteers opened warming centers throughout the area and named them after him. The Thomas Egan Warming Center opened in the winter of 2008 to give the homeless population a place to stay warm on freezing nights. It has only grown in function and usage since.
Doug Bales, Program Manager for the Egan Warming Center, was not initially involved with the project. During the same cold spell that took Egan’s life, Bales opened up his garage to a man who lived in his neighborhood in a camper. Setting up a mattress and a heater, Bales tried to keep the homeless man comfortable and warm while the temperatures outside stayed below 30 degrees. On the fourth night of his stay, however, the man got drunk and hurt himself with one of Bales’ power tools.
“I took him to the hospital, paid a nice little bill and thought, ‘As an individual, I put myself in huge risk and liability to take care of somebody and help,’” said Bales. “I had been on various boards and things in the community, but it didn’t feel like I was really doing anything.”
Through networking with other like-minded activists in the community, Bales found out about the Egan Warming Center project. At first, it suffered from a lack of organizational structure, Bales said. Volunteering as a cook and dishwasher at the downtown warming location at the First Christian Church, he witnessed firsthand the good intentions of the program, but noted that it needed more organization to be fully effective.
“The downtown location kind of descended into a bit of chaos,” said Bales, commenting on the first week of operation.
Drawing from an ex-military background, he helped restore order to the downtown warming center. After a week, Bales was promoted to site leader and after that first winter, St. Vincent De Paul, the organization that funds the Egan Warming Center, asked him to lead the program.
Four years later, the Egan Warming Center now boasts 10 locations throughout Eugene and Springfield that activate when forecasted weather dips below freezing levels. Working with Food For Lane County and other nonprofits, the warming centers provide nutritious meals, blankets, sleeping bags, gloves, socks and undergarments for guests who need them. The centers provide breakfast and dinner, and volunteers who cook often try extra hard to provide a special meal.
“One of our cooks will bring in food that she has –vegetables, sometimes she’ll be making a soup– and her husband works in the kitchen too,” said Shelley Corteville, Volunteer Coordinator for the Springfield team. “She sends him home to get the spices that she needs. A lot of love goes into the meals. It’s pretty impressive.”
Guests who are intoxicated or have pets are not turned away by the Egan Warming Center. Instead, they are allowed in and given shelter as long as certain rules are followed.
“We tell them they’re not going to do drugs or drink on our property –we know they do those things– don’t do them here, it’s not the time or place,” said Bales. “If you’re wiling to be quiet, no violence, raised voices or harming anyone else, you’re welcome to stay.”
Bales said they have “one or two issues” concerning violence, drugs or alcohol each night they’re open, but the issues are often self-policed by the guests at the center and do not cause much serious concern. Bales and Corteville both said the vast majority of guests who stay at the warming centers are grateful to have them open and don’t want to lose that opportunity. Not only do the guests self-regulate unruly visitors before problems arise, many of them also volunteer at the sites.
“It’s important for people to know that many of our volunteers are actually our homeless guests. When you have the very people you’re serving volunteer, I think that really says something both about the gratitude and wanting to give back, wanting to be a member of the community,” said Corteville. “I think that’s one of the things that we have done.”
Since 2008 the Egan Warming Center program grew from a small, slightly chaotic project into a well-organized group that logged over 12,000 volunteer hours last year. During a mild 2011 winter, 926 different individuals stayed at an Egan Warming Center, while almost 6,000 meals were provided. About 300 guests stayed on an average night the centers were activated, Bales said.
The program remains successful and sustainable because of the generosity of the volunteers and will only grow in the future, Bales and Corteville said. The effectiveness of the project is so well-known in the local community that garnering volunteers and financial support comes naturally.
“I’ve got 400 people I get emails and calls from who say, ‘When are you going to open? Let’s go, let’s do this thing,’” said Bales. “I cant go anywhere that people aren’t offering donations or support.”
For the volunteers who spend countless hours organizing and making sure the centers operate smoothly, the reward is worth the hard work.
“When you talk to every single volunteer, we get more out of it than we put into it,” said Bales.
“We volunteers get a lot out of it,” she said. “There’s nothing better for me, listening to everybody talking, laughing and feeling safe. People playing cards with our volunteers because they feel safe. That’s really heartwarming to me.”
At the end of a long day — after the last meal is served, all blankets are handed out and the lights turned off– Bales and the rest of the Egan Warming Center volunteers take comfort in an unexpected respite.
“I stay late and cruise around all the sites at night monitoring the volume of the snoring,” Bales said. “It’s the best success meter for how are we doing.”
Information on how to donate or volunteer and site locations and hours of operation are available at the Egan Warming Center website at http://www.eganwarmingcenter.com