In the community

Left out in the cold: Lack of resources leaves homeless at the mercy of severe winter temps

ONTARIO – Area temperatures are expected to plummet to single digits during the next four days, leaving more than 300 homeless at risk because local resources for the unhoused are already stretched to the limit and no formal 24-hour shelter exists.

The National Weather Service in Boise forecast temperatures in the Ontario area to dip as low as 14 degrees Friday night and into Saturday morning.

Saturday night the temperature is predicted to fall to 11 degrees while Sunday night the temperature is forecast to be 9. The low Monday night is forecast to be 12 degrees.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, prolonged exposure to such low temperatures can lead to hypothermia, where a body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced. Long-term exposure to cold can lead to an abnormally low body temperature and health risks.

In Ontario, the homeless can count on several places to find shelter during the day but after 5 p.m. they are, for the most part, on their own.

Origins Faith Community and Eastern Oregon Center for Independent Living offer a place for the homeless to shelter when the thermometer falls into the teens as does Veterans Advocates of Ore-Ida.

“The problem is we have limited resources,” said Mike Iawi, Ontario police chief.

Ontario lacks a facility that is open 24 hours a day to help the homeless escape inclement weather.

The absence of a 24-hour shelter creates challenges for relief organizations. Geared to help the unhoused, Origins and Eastern Oregon Center for Independent Living work to bridge the gap as best they can.

“Our board actually talked about opening the church, the sanctuary, at Origins and putting cots out when the temperatures drops below freezing. People could come in and stay until 7 a.m. The issue we have is we don’t have the funding to pay for oversight. We’d have to have two people for safety,” said Heather Echeveste, Origins executive director.

Origins Faith Community operates a day shelter from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and serves a hot lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

After the shelter closes, the homeless “hunker down,” said Echeveste. Most days, she said, the homeless begin to leave Origins around 5 p.m. “to get to their camps to start fires to stay warm. If they have a camp down by the river, let’s say, they want to get back there before it gets dark.”

Now, Echeveste, Origins stays open “as long as we can” every day.

“We are handing out Mylar blankets and wool blankets instead of sleeping bags. We hand out socks like crazy,” said Echeveste.

The blankets are especially useful, said Echeveste.

“If they wrap up in them it really helps,” said Echeveste.

Origins also hands out extra food on Friday –“things they can take it with them, like non-perishables, for the weekend,” said Echeveste.

Even after dark, though, some emergency services are available, said Echeveste.

“If they are in an emergency, they can come to us. They will get help. We’ll do whatever we can for them,” said Echeveste.

Echeveste said during the winter months Origins staffs 16 tiny homes, just behind Origins Faith Community Church at 312 N.W. 2nd St., who can help during an emergency. For example, recently, said Echeveste, a homeless person arrived at Origins at night and “they were literally almost at frostbite.”

“We got them inside the office and got them warmed up and put a cot out so they could lay down and get their body temperature up,” said Echeveste.

Once the man warmed up, he left.

“He went back to wherever he was sleeping,” said Echeveste.

The tiny house effort was the creation of the Homeless Siting Task Force and began in 2019. The homes, now full, are only available for the homeless until April 30.

Help in an emergency is only a stop gap, said Echeveste, and only a facility open 24 hours can alleviate the problems the homeless face during cold temperatures.

Echeveste said Origins is trying to develop a plan to install two patio heaters powered by propane at the meal site to help the homeless during freezing temperatures.

“We are trying to figure out a way to secure them so they don’t leave the property,” said Echeveste.

The plan would include “shelter staff to keep an eye on them and, if a tank runs out, put a full one in day or night.”

Kirt Toombs, chief executive officer of the Eastern Oregon Center for Independent Living, said his group also provides shelter during the day at its facility at 463 South Park Blvd in Ontario.

 “People can access rest rooms, warm shelter, but that is only available from 8 am. to 5 p.m.,” he said.

Eastern Oregon Center also provides warm clothes and tents if needed.

So far, he said, no one has used its warming shelter

Charlene Pelland, executive director of the Veterans Advocates of Ore-Ida, a local nonprofit for veterans in the area, said from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., the organization hands out wool blankets, gloves and socks for kids and adults at 180 W. Idaho Ave in Ontario.

Pelland, who typically works from home, said during a Wednesday, Dec. 14, phone interview that up to 25 people had come in looking for help.

Additionally, Pelland said the veterans’ group serves coffee from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and has a food pantry stocked with canned goods and non-perishable food. She said they could also provide can openers.

“If we have it, Pelland said, “we will give it out.”

Last month, Pelland said, the nonprofit gave away two tons of food and she anticipates handing out more this month.

Pelland said the group serves 1,400 and 1,900 veterans in Malheur and Payette County, respectively. Of that total, she said up to 25% are homeless. Pelland said many, while not homeless, struggle to make ends meet.

Pelland said that while the organization’s primary focus is veterans, it would not turn anyone away who needs help.

Pelland noted that the organization also partners with other agencies, including Communities in Action and Origins Faith Community Outreach Initiative.

Those looking for more information from Veterans Advocates of Ore-Ida can call 541-889-1978.

Priscilla Garcia, housing and homeless program manager with Community in Action at 915 Southwest 3rd Ave. in Ontario, said since October, the agency has housed those experiencing homelessness in its tiny shelters programs. Garcia said the waitlist has about 15 people on it. She said the organization has prioritized families and hopes to find them permanent housing. Those in the tiny shelters will have housing through the winter. According to Garcia, the agency has funding for emergency shelter, allowing them to pay for 10 hotel rooms for those experiencing homelessness. The program, Garcia said, prioritizes families with children.

Additionally, Garcia said, Communities in Action provides tents, sleeping bags and coats. 

Those looking for more information can call Communities in Action at 541-889-9555 Monday through Thursday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Garcia said staff could arrange appointments during those hours.

Reporter Steven Mitchell contributed to this report.

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