Astoria, Ore. — Winter hit Oregon’s North Coast especially hard in the last half of February.
For homeless people in the Astoria area, the dip in temperatures and the snow, ice and windstorms came at a time when there were even fewer than usual options for shelter.
The Astoria Warming Center, which would typically provide a space to sleep during the coldest months, has been closed since Feb. 4, after a homeless guest was arrested for allegedly stabbing one employee and throwing an explosive device at another.
In mid-February, Astoria officials scrambled to open an emergency shelter ahead of severe winter weather. The shelter opened at the Astoria Armory with Clatsop Community Action, a social services agency that also runs a warming center in Seaside, handling logistics and providing staff.
The Armory is a community event center better known for hosting roller skating nights and volleyball practices in its large gymnasium, but has now hosted 23 to 30 people in a carpeted lobby area each night the emergency shelter has been open — most recently on Tuesday night when temperatures once again dropped.
Mike Davies, board president for the Armory, and Clatsop Community Action say the Armory’s role as a warming shelter for the homeless is — and probably should — remain temporary. The Armory isn’t set up to become a regular shelter for the homeless, Davies say
But the need was clear, Davies said. And opening the shelter prompted other conversations with the city and county about what kind of role the Armory could play in sheltering people displaced by local disasters like wildfires or landslides.
“We certainly have no plans to become a regular warming center,” he said, but added, “We have assured the whole North Coast community … we’re a part of the community. We want to be an asset. We want to be available as needed for whatever community need should come up.”
Still, said Viviana Mathews, executive director of Clatsop Community Action, “Emergency warming shelters are a critical need in Clatsop County that can only be addressed by community partners working together to find solutions.”
The future of the Astoria Warming Center is in flux. The center is working to finalize a merger with LiFEBoat Services, a nonprofit in downtown Astoria that runs a daytime drop-in center for the homeless.
LiFEBoat hopes to eventually open a year-round emergency shelter to run in tandem with their existing services, but the organization is also in the middle of negotiating a permit with the city to operate a temporary, 90-day shelter from their downtown offices.
The temporary shelter could potentially house around 40 people a night. Osarch Orak, LiFEBoat’s executive director, estimates this would cover about 90 percent of the immediate need in the Astoria area.
“But we would turn people away,” he said. “We would probably turn on average about 20 people away a night — and that number is only going to grow in the coming years with the fallout of COVID — a lot of people are becoming homeless.”
While the merger process is ongoing with LiFEBoat Services, the Astoria Warming Center has no plans to reopen this season and has laid off all of its staff.
Representatives of the warming center told KMUN that it has been hard to remain closed.
“As you might imagine, our staff, volunteers and board members have struggled with the inability to continue services, especially with the recent cold snaps,” the center said in a statement, “but we feel that we cannot in good conscience re-open until additional training and reorganization has taken place to ensure the safety of everyone involved.”
The center is working with LiFEBoat to plan a community training around principles of trauma-informed care.