Gregg Carter took a drag off his cigarette and smiled happily.
In five minutes hence, the Pendleton Warming Station would open for the season. Carter and two others who waited with him on Saturday looked forward to escaping the winter chill.
Carter wore practical attire — a stocking cap, heavy canvas coat, jeans and sturdy boots. A beard buffered his face from the chill. The Marine Corps veteran and former cabinet maker said he has slept under the stars for several years. At night, he finds a wooded area and “sleeps in the shadows,” nestled in two mummy bags, one nested inside the other. During the day, he walks, reads at the library and volunteers at the Salvation Army. To clean himself, he finds a restroom and does the best he can with the squirt gun and washcloth he keeps in his backpack.
The warming station’s front door opened at 6:30 p.m. sharp and the trio headed inside, where several volunteers chorused a greeting. Carter sat down at a desk and listened as volunteer KaSandra Williams read a list of ground rules as part of the intake process.
“You are not allowed to possess or use alcohol, marijuana or non-prescribed drugs in or around the warming station,” Williams intoned. “No weapons are allowed. …”
She ticked off behaviors that would result in expulsion: refusing to follow instructions, physical coercion, tampering with any of the 16 surveillance cameras, repeated use of profanity, disruptive behavior and entering the staff area, among others.
Carter listened, nodding. He signed a form agreeing to abide by each rule. Another volunteer led him to a storage room, where he stashed his backpack. The volunteer gave him sheets, pillow case and a blanket and led him to his bunk. He grinned at the pillow case — last year, he’d been issued a Barbie pillowcase. This new bedding, a gift from the Pendleton High School CommuniCare Club, all matched. There wasn’t a Barbie in sight.
Bedding wasn’t the only upgrade at the warming station. Gone were the tarps and buckets set out last winter to collect rain leaking through a porous, deteriorating roof. Instead of mats and cots, bunkbeds populated the two sleeping rooms — one for men and the other for women — with sleeping space for 25.
The warming station moved just prior to last season from a city-owned house near Washington Elementary School into the new location at 715 S.E. Court Ave. The approximately 3,000-square-foot building, gifted by St. Anthony Hospital, had good bones, but also the leaky roof, plumbing issues, a cantankerous heating system and the beginnings of dry rot. Space heaters helped when the heating system sporadically went on the fritz.
“We limped through the season,” said Chris Clemons, chairman of the Neighbor 2 Neighbor board, which oversees the warming station.
Clemons, also pastor of the Pendleton Church of the Nazarene, praised the community for stepping up. A $25,575 Pendleton Foundation Trust grant financed a new roof. Wildhorse Foundation granted $10,000 for new heat pumps. CAPECO paid for bunkbeds. Other smaller grants and community donations funded the installation of a shower and a third toilet and other improvements. Community tradesmen donated services.
Clemons and other volunteers worked hundreds of hours getting the place ready to open for the 2017 season, painting, spackling, assembling bunkbeds and finishing numerous other projects.
During last season’s harsh winter, the warming station opened 103 nights straight and sheltered 101 different people from the cold. Thirty-seven volunteers worked at the facility.
“We could easily use twice that many,” Clemons said. “We won’t open without at least two volunteers on site.”
The Pendleton Warming Station is one of two such shelters in Umatilla County. The Hermiston Warming Station opened on Nov. 20 and has served six to eight guests each night. Volunteer Trish Roselle said 30 different people have stayed so far and she expects that number to hit 100 by the end of February when the warming station closes.
On this first night of the season in Pendleton, the warming station welcomed four guests — three men and one woman. On Sunday, seven people stayed the night. The census should rise as word spreads.
Each guest gets a warm meal. Clemons praised eateries such as Big John’s, the Sundown Bar and Grill and PHS culinary students for regularly bringing food.
KaSandra Williams said she volunteered at the facility for something to do and fell in love with it.
“I feel like I’m doing something for the greater good,” she said. “I’m not just throwing money at the problem, I’m putting time in.”
She genuinely likes the people who come out of the cold into this place.
“These guys and gals are pretty awesome,” Williams said.
She urged anyone interested in volunteering to attend one of the periodic trainings.
The shelter’s lodgers can’t all be put into the same box. Neighbor 2 Neighbor vice chairman Dwight Johnson has volunteered at the warming station since near the beginning of the facility’s history seven years ago. He said some of the guests are simply down on their luck. Others struggle with substance abuse or mental illness — or both. Sometimes the two are so entwined that they can’t be teased apart or ordered.
“Do they develop mental illness because of substance abuse, or did substance abuse lead to mental illness?” Johnson said.
He shrugged. It doesn’t really matter, at least in respect to the warming station’s mission. A guest is a guest — someone who needs to get out of the cold and doesn’t have a home or money for a hotel room. The warming station board maintains laser-like focus on its reason for existence.
“We offer shelter for anyone who needs a place to stay on a cold winter night,” Clemons said. “We don’t want anyone freezing on the street.”
The mission, he said, is simple, narrow and basic. The warming station offers people a chance to sleep in a warm bed and live to see another day.
“They’ll have tomorrow and they’ll walk away with a little bit of hope,” Clemons said.
Contact Kathy Aney at email@example.com or 941-966-0810.