By Terry McDonald
Winter is coming. But its icy fingers precede its formal Dec. 21 arrival: Temperatures below 30 degrees are likely to activate the Egan Warming Center for several consecutive nights of biting cold forecast this week in Eugene-Springfield.
As background for those blessed enough to be only vaguely aware of the Egan Warming Center, it is an emergency shelter system created to shield the unhoused from the elements during the coldest times of the year. Normally administered between Nov. 15 and March 31 by St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County — but already kickstarted early twice this year, on Oct. 25 and Nov. 8 — the program activates when overnight temperatures drop to life-threatening levels.
Named for Maj. Thomas Egan, who died sleeping outside on a frigid 2008 night in Eugene, the Egan Warming Center’s clear mission is to save lives when it’s too dangerous to be outside.
But what happens when it’s also too dangerous to be inside with groups of other people at the very same time?
This is the troubling paradox we face right now, as deadly cold confronts a cascading set of complications presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
We have fewer available warming facilities to use because of fears about virus transmission at host sites, such as local churches. And even if we still had access to those locations, we would need yet more sites. COVID-19 physical distancing requirements now demand fewer people, in beds spaced farther apart, even in short-term congregate shelter settings.
Public health guidance limits gatherings to 50 people, which means that with the necessary volunteers and support staff, we can house only about 40 people per site per night. During Egan activations in years past, we’ve sheltered as many as 400 to 500 across the system. We might have safe space for only about 120 with the facilities limitations we now face.
The dire scenario of turning people away into the freezing dark seems unthinkable, but there is a real stretching of the system happening right now precisely because we also must maintain best practices to stem COVID-19. We are at a crucial juncture.
We need more host sites, but we also need more trained volunteers to run them. Many of Egan’s existing pool of volunteers are older adults, who are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19 or have other existing health concerns and are being encouraged to stay home themselves.
So what do we do in the face of these compounding, confounding factors before they severely limit our ability to protect the most vulnerable among us — people who have fallen through every other safety net in our community?
For one, we need the Lane County Fairgrounds/Lane Events Center committed to ongoing Egan usage. Multiple nearby buildings there, including Wheeler Pavilion and Expo Hall #2, can shelter the largest numbers of people in a centralized location where the need is greatest. This would simplify volunteer, staff and supply logistics, limit the challenge of transporting guests to more far-flung shelter sites, and create a physical anchor for Egan through the COVID-19 storm.
Second, we need more volunteers less vulnerable to COVID-19 who are willing to dedicate themselves to the Egan cause and accept a bit of calculated risk, recognizing that the immediate danger is much greater for those out in the cold. Particularly as longer activations happen later this winter, more volunteers will need to be trained and step forward when asked. Those interested can email EganWarmingCenter@svdp.us to sign up for either of two virtual volunteer orientations scheduled for Dec. 1 and 3.
Finally, and more broadly, we need local government and community leaders to come together in new ways around these challenges. We must build out more sheltering capacity to deal with the cascade of issues that will peak as winter weather and COVID-19 both grow in severity.
Of course, we are grateful for the many local partnerships and shared stewardship embodied in the Egan Warming Center. It represents ongoing collaboration between a nonprofit, local government, volunteers and faith communities in serving a greater good.
But we all need to warm up to new ways of doing things, and we need to do it quickly. If we act together now, we can save lives as we move into a darker, colder time, when disease and freezing temperatures will pose graver threats both indoors and out.
Winter, and worse, is coming.
Terry McDonald is executive director of St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County. Virtual trainings for new Egan Warming Center volunteers, via Zoom, are scheduled 6 pm to 7:30 pm Tuesday, Dec. 1, and 7 pm to 8:30 pm Thursday, Dec. 3. Email EganWarmingCenter@svdp.us to RSVP a link to your preferred session.