Warming Center heats up for winter


By Sue Cody



Warming CenterAs winter approaches, the Astoria Warming Center is preparing to serve the homeless population by providing a safe, warm place to sleep when the outdoor elements are harsh. The Warming Center, which started last year, has moved to Astoria’s First United Methodist Church at 1111 Franklin Ave.



Astoria City Councilor Drew Herzig said the idea for a warming center arose from a plea to the council by Terry Wilson of KMUN, Coast Community Radio: “When is Astoria going to open a warming center?” Herzig said Wilson asked over and over.



Herzig said he was familiar with the concept, and he and others looked for a facility. The Astoria Senior Center Board approved use of its empty building last year. It was open 24 nights between Dec. 28 and mid-March.



The Warming Center is only open during cold or stormy weather. This year, it is aiming to open when temperatures reach 40 degrees or severe weather is predicted.



Herzig said one of the difficulties is acknowledging that the coastal community has a homeless population. There are still people who don’t want to believe it’s a problem, he said.



When asked why he was involved in this effort, he responded, “I’ve always had a mindset that we’re here to help each other. The advantage of a small town is you can make a difference. It is more noticeable.”



The challenge is the local lack of resources to respond to social ills, Herzig said. He and others visited homeless support services in Eugene and St. Helens, where partners from community action teams, government and social services have partnered to provide safe warming shelters. They learned of the need for showers and laundry facilities to improve the health and self-esteem of the homeless.



A washer and dryer have been donated and installation is in progress. “Having a shower would make a huge difference,” Herzig said. So far, the $10,0000 funding for installing a shower has not materialized.



Warming Center 2Current needs



“Our biggest need is volunteers,” said Herzig. With no paid staff and run by volunteers, the Astoria Warming Center last year served 66 people for a total number of 321 overnight stays. For each night the center was open last winter, nine on-site volunteers, three cleanup crew members and two volunteers provided food for a total of 1,032 hours.



Because the church uses the social hall for other purposes, it will be necessary to set up the sleeping area each night and dismantle the next morning.



Training for volunteers will begin in November. Last year, 60 people were trained, and Herzig said he hopes many will return. As an incentive to volunteers, the Lower Columbia Time Bank is offering members credit for hours donated to the Warming Center.



“We don’t want to make anyone feel unsafe,” so there is always a seasoned volunteer serving with new volunteers, Herzig said. “We want to make sure nobody is in harm’s way, including our guests.”



The Warming Center is totally supported by donations. “People were very generous last year,” Herzig said. Foam sleeping pads, sheets, blankets and other supplies were donated. Churches supplied materials, and volunteers served soup. 



Food can be reheated at the Warming Center, but not cooked there, because there is no commercial kitchen. This year Herzig said he would like local restaurants to donate food on a given night with 24-hour notice. Involving the community is helpful, he said.



“Many of the homeless begin opening up when we see them as real human beings, as individuals,” Herzig said. Once trust is built, they share more stories and feel more comfortable.



How to donate



A concert, “Music for Warm Nights,” by A Consort of All Sorts raised $720 for the Astoria Warming Center. Funds raised help pay utilities and purchase supplies. Basic costs are covered, but more funds are needed to improve services to the homeless.



The Warming Center has filed as an Oregon nonprofit, but would like to partner with another agency to coordinate activities, Herzig said.



Grace Episcopal Church has set up a tax-deductible account for donations to the Astoria Warming Center. This is a restricted account in which all funds go directly to the Warming Center. Donations may be made to Grace Church-Astoria Warming Center, 1545 Franklin Ave., Astoria, OR 97103 or visit http://www.graceastoria.org and donate to Jubilee Ministries-Astoria Warming Center.



The Warming Center also needs twin sheets and washable blankets – no comforters, Herzig said. To arrange for a donation of items or for more information, contact Herzig at 503-325-1895 or drewherzig@gmail.com.