Polk County Warming Centers celebrates its third season of service

Photos courtesy of Matt Smucker and PolkWarming

Warming centers continue to provide temporary sleeping accommodations to Polk County’s homeless population

Sydney Carpenter | News Editor

During the winter months, Oregon temperatures can drop below freezing at night, leaving those without a place to call home exposed to the elements. Starting in 2017, a group of pastors around Polk County identified the growing need for temporary housing within the area.

“A few pastors and I were having a meal at Rock-N-Rogers when a young gentleman walked in   needing a place to stay,” said Pastor Matt Smucker of Praise Assembly Church and co-founder of the Polk County Warming Centers. “We, through the course of the day, realized we don’t have any shelter options in Polk County.”

Determined to help a community in need, Smucker explained that he and Monmouth Christan Church Pastor Sean Bitzer reached out to the Director of the Family and Community Outreach Program, Brent DeMoe, and began drafting a grant proposal to fund the Warming Center in Polk County. According to Smucker, their initial ask was $12,000, but they were pleasantly surprised when they received $25,000.

 “It really allowed us to do so much more that first year,” explained Smucker. “We were able to get a trailer, to get all of the equipment, mattresses and even to start paying our overnight hosts a stipend to oversee the program that night.”

Under their current model, the Warming Center rotates through seven churches in the communities of Dallas and the IndyMo area — each location on call for a two-week period — rather than having a designated facility. According to their website, this was done to avoid overburdening any singular faith community or resource partner. 

The Warming Center season runs from Nov. 1 through March 31, and is active on nights when the temperature is forecast to drop below freezing, housing a maximum of 25 people. This year, Smucker says that they are trying to open up more on nights that are above freezing when weather conditions are particularly wet or stormy. The center welcomes singles, couples, families and people with animals.

“We want to have as low a barrier as possible,” said Smucker. “We want to make sure that everyone is able to be safe and warm on nights that get below freezing, because death from exposure is a real threat.”

According to Smucker, a resident of Polk County passed away from hypothermia on the streets in Independence about four years ago.

To abide by COVID-19 regulations, the Warming Center now takes people’s temperature before admitting them into the church. According to Smucker, the Warming Center has been able to partner with some hotels in Polk County to temporarily house and quarantine anyone running a fever of 100.4 °F, in accordance with the guidelines from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Additionally, for community members permitted into the church, all beds are placed 10 feet apart to ensure maximal social distancing.

“We need to still address this emergency need even though we are still dealing with COVID,” said Smucker. “We are trying to put in the best practices of keeping people safe with masks, distancing, cleaning procedures and things like that.”

Smucker says he firmly believes that the Warming Center is an essential service for the community that needs to keep running, but safely. Despite current circumstances, the Warming Center has continued to receive volunteers and could always use more.

“I found out about the Warming Center through Polk County Service Integration,” said new volunteer Ramon Martinez. “I just think that this is an important initiative that’s being done. We’re not in the big city, but the reality is that there are some folks in our community that do need a place to stay.”

Martinez explained that the Warming Center is not only a place to stay, but also a place that helps people get on their feet. The center acts as a resource to help an individual get access to information that improves their overall quality of life. Depending on volunteers, guests also are served snacks and hot meals.

To learn whether the Warming Center is open, check their website www.polkwarming.weebly.com, or their Instagram page @polkwarming. If someone needs transportation to their sites or wants to donate items, call 503-949-4987 to speak with Annie. Currently, they need granola bars, packaged nuts, menstrual care items, Christmas gifts, wool socks and hats, gloves, hand warmers, medicated chapstick, bath and hand towels, disposable drink and plateware, soda, peanut butter and jelly and anything water resistant. 

For volunteer opportunities, contact them via Facebook or Instagram @polkwarming. 

Contact the author at scarpenter18@mail.wou.edu

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