During the 22 sub-freezing nights last winter, 1,527 individuals—including 35 children—found warmth and safety through our area’s Egan Warming Center (EWC). However, for Tim Black, winter strategies coordinator for St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County, one night in particular stands out.
Black starting working with EWC in January 2019, sporting a résumé that includes operations coordinator for the mobile mental-health crisis assistance van CAHOOTS. When February’s winter storm dropped nine and a half inches of snow, Black drove volunteers to EWC locations and coordinated an extra room in downtown Eugene’s First Christian Church. In the middle of the night, Black and some volunteers checked the surrounding streets for anyone sleeping outside.
“Around 3 am, we found a woman sleeping on the bare cement in front of a store,” Black says. “We woke her, asked if she wanted to come in and get warm. It was painful for her to stand up, but we got her inside. If we hadn’t found her, I wonder if she would have been alive the next morning.”
It’s a regular reminder to Black and the EWC’s 350-plus volunteers that their work saves lives.
“Those are the moments you remember,” Black says. “Every day, every person, is a gift, and we need to be thankful.”
This winter, demand isn’t likely to ease up. Lane County’s 2019 Homeless Point in Time Count showed 2,165 people experiencing homelessness countywide, a 32-percent increase from 2018. Between November 15 and March 31, when temperatures drop below 30 degrees Fahrenheit, the Egan Warming Center “activates” and takes in as many people as it can: about 400 people per night if all sites are open.
Providing a warm, safe place to spend a freezing night, plus access to dinner and breakfast, is a matter of kindness and meeting basic needs, something Black believes people understand and value.
“There’s a common misconception that the more and better services a community has, the place becomes a magnet that increases the problem,” Black says. “Yet the numbers do not show that. These are our people, our neighbors, our community members. If they don’t have a support system, then we can be those support systems.”
The Egan Warming Center is named for a man who was discovered dead near the north end of Blair Boulevard nearly 12 years ago. He was 60 years old and partially buried in snow. Soon after his death, the community learned that he was Major Thomas Egan, an Army veteran who had once been stationed at the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Major Egan also earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon in 1983. In 1991, after 20 years of decorated service to his country, Major Egan retired honorably. Sometime after that, though, he fell into homelessness, alcohol addiction, and, in 2008, one freezing, final night.
In 2017 alone, more than 1,100 volunteers dedicated 22,000 hours of service to EWC. Some volunteers help with food and site prep in the afternoons and evenings, some are there overnight, and some come in the morning to help with cleanup and transition. In addition to the volunteers, EWC is run by the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County and receives support and assistance from many area businesses, faith centers, nonprofits, and more. While donations of cash or warm winter clothing are always welcome, volunteer support is needed most.
“We encourage people to come to the training, try one shift, and see what it’s like,” Black says. “They’ll see: The guests are just like us. They had things that happened in their lives, many addiction and mental health issues, but they want to contribute to their community, too. It demystifies the differences between us and our guests when you sit down, share a meal, and have a conversation.”
Black appreciates how a growing number of segments of the community—businesses, faith organizations, the unhoused—are meeting and trying to find real solutions to the area’s homelessness problems. Such big problems can seem overwhelming, but all it takes is one person to make a difference.
“The math is simple,” Black says. “One volunteer, on one night, can save one life.”
To learn more about Egan Warming Center locations, volunteer training sessions, donations, and more, visit eganwarmingcenter.com