15th Night Youth Action Council Members advocating for their unhoused peers. Photo courtesy 15th Night.

‘Safe Shelter, Food and Clothing’

Youth-serving providers propose temporary COVID-19 shelter

As the novel coronavirus pandemic entered our community, homeless advocates sprang to work, trying to protect the most vulnerable among us. Lane County, in conjunction with nonprofits such as White Bird Clinic and St. Vincent de Paul, has adapted its services and opened new shelters for adults experiencing homelessness.

Now it’s time to turn to unhoused youth in Eugene, says Megan Shultz, community coordinator for 15th Night, a partnership between groups and nonprofits in the Eugene area that works with unhoused youth to find solutions that work for this underserved community.

While Lane County is working to do outreach, it says it cannot open new beds to shelter unhoused youth. So providers surveyed youth and came up with a proposal: opening First United Methodist Church as a temporary shelter.

More than 1,600 students in the Bethel, Eugene and Springfield school districts experienced homelessness during the 2018-2019 school year, according to data from the Oregon Department of Education. Nearly 500 of those students experienced it alone.

While young people in general are not at a high risk of death due to COVID-19, Shultz says unhoused youth do have a higher risk. “When you’re sleeping in the cold or not getting enough to eat, you’re scared all the time, your stress levels are running high, it makes sense that you would be more at risk of getting sick of anything, right?” she says.

The nonprofits and groups that make up 15th Night, such as Looking Glass and the Hosea Youth Services Resource Center, are “still in the trenches” serving the community, Shultz says, but their services had to adapt. For instance, Looking Glass’ Station 7 shelter expanded its age range but had to decrease the number of beds it operates, from 14 to eight, and HOOTS, a White Bird program that offers mental health support in high schools, opened a counseling phone line for high schoolers and their families now that schools are closed.

Lane County is focused on making sure there is a plan in place in case unhoused youth test positive for COVID-19, County Commission Chair Heather Buch says — that hasn’t happened yet, but they could be quarantined in hotels or at the old veterans’ clinic that was adapted for COVID-19, she says.

Many homeless youth have also been affected by the stay-at-home order, because places where they were able to access resources, like schools, are closed.

“Part of our priority is knowing where they are or where they were before COVID-19. And is that a safe place for them? And can we bring some services to them?” Buch says. As part of a joint response to COVID-19 by the county, Eugene and Springfield, the city of Eugene established a mobile outreach team to unhoused people to make sure they have access to services, Buch says.

However, the county has no plans to open new beds for unhoused youth yet. “I wish we could,” Buch says.

So providers surveyed 35 youths experiencing homelessness who interact with their services about their current needs, where they’ve been staying and where they would be willing to shelter.

According to that survey, nearly three quarters of the youths interviewed have sheltered in an unsafe environment in the last six months. One in three of the youths interviewed reported having a chronic illness, which may make them more susceptible to complications from COVID-19. The three priority needs they reported were safe shelter, food and clothing.

It was based on the results of that survey that the nonprofits proposed opening up the First United Methodist Church site, which operates the youth Egan Warming Center when it’s active, as a temporary, low barrier shelter for up to 40 unhoused youth under 21 years old.

“This is a community, youth-informed proposal,” Shultz says of the proposed plan. According to the proposal, youth feel comfortable at the church because it’s already familiar to them, and having a central location will prevent them from roaming, which could lead them to contract or spread the illness.

The estimated cost to get the shelter up and running for 90 days is $150,000, and St. Vincent de Paul, which operates many of the permanent and temporary COVID-19 shelters in Eugene, would operate the shelter. It can be running within a week of funding, according to the proposal.

Shultz emphasizes that they aren’t asking for the county specifically to fund the shelter. “We can move quicker with private dollars than we can with public dollars,” she says. SVDP is taking donations for the shelter online. Those interested in donating to the shelter can specify the program in the form.

The HOOTS phone lines can be reached 9 am – 4 pm Monday-Friday. Students, families and staff of 4J and Bethel schools should call 541-246-2342, while those in Springfield, South Lane or Oakridge Schools should call 541-246-2332.