Dec. 5, 2022 — “Our homeless population is not going to go away,” said Patricia Burke, president of the Florence Emergency Cold Weather Shelter (FECWS). “It is increasing because the rent moratorium has been lifted and so it's making it much more difficult to keep a roof over the head and food on the table. We have local workers who are living in their cars, and I know this because they drive their car out to the shelter when we're open.”
FECWS, a secluded emergency shelter located on Highway 101, north of Fred Meyer and across from the new Three Mile Prairie Housing Development, opened its doors for the first time this year in November. The season comes as the City of Florence discusses how to approach transitional housing and other issues regarding homlessness.
Burke, who sits on the City’s Housing Implementation Project, which is looking at these issues, has been keenly aware of stark differences in the community regarding guests at FECWS, and the fear and frustration some have on the issue.
“Having heard lots of stories about ‘those drunks’ and ‘those drug addicts’ and ‘those crazy people who are on the corners and pulling down the property values’ — if we can get them into shelter, then they're not what is considered an eyesore by some of our upstanding residents,” she said. “To me, providing this kind of service speaks well of the town.”
Burke shared her experiences at the FECWS by explaining a typical day at the shelter, which opens when it’s expected to be 32 degrees or less, though that’s flexible when rain is factored in.
“If it’s chilly and we’ve had a number of days of rain, we’ll open because camps get soaked and people get soaked. They’re walking around in wet shoes and wet socks and it’s pretty miserable,” Burke explained, adding that the shelter can be opened for multiple days if needed.
Once it’s decided to open, calls go out for volunteers to help cook breakfast and dinner for guests, while the temporary Pallet Shelters are set up, which consist of 20 8x8 foot cabins that have the ability to sleep four.
“But four would seem like being in a prison cell, because you would have to stack bunks on top of eachother,” Burke said. “Most of the cabins have just two bunks — one on each wall. And we try very hard to allow people to have their own individual cabin, unless they opt for a roommate. But very often we had 24 people and we did have some people who had to double up.”
As FECWS sets up, more volunteers get the word out that they’re opening, posting on social media, contacting local organizations that frequently work with the unhoused and setting out flags throughout town to designate pickup areas: “The library, Safeway, Linda’s laundry, Fred Meyer and, of course, where we are,” Burke said.
At that point, volunteers take shifts picking up guests at the flag points.
“If we see people slogging along, we’ll stop and offer a ride to the shelter,” Burke added.
Once there, the guests go through a limited intake.
“We explain the rules, and our big emphasis is respectfulness and kindness so that everybody is comfortable,” Burke said.
Around 6:30 p.m., dinner is served, which consists of a variety of meals, depending on the volunteers who provide food.
“One of our guests last year said, ‘You know, we should call this the Florence Hilton,’ because we had an eight-foot table that was completely covered with food — fried chicken, ribs, baked beans, coleslaw, corn on the cob,” recalled Burke. “I mean, it was just amazing.”
Sometimes guests eat together, but some also decide to sleep in “solitary splendor” in the cabins, which include heaters, doors that can be locked, and a made bed.
“A lot of people will come and their first night, and probably first day, will be spent just sleeping and being quiet and being safe behind the locked door,” Burke said. “A lot of people who are camping sleep with one eye open. There's hyper alertness to possible predation of some kind.”
In the morning, breakfast is served by volunteers, and guests commiserate.
“There tends to be a lot of camaraderie. Lots of, excuse the expression, bulls**t — but it's very kind,” Burke said. “It's lots of stories about who did what, when, why. And I really try to encourage a very warm, kind, respectful, loving environment. And I do get my bi**h on when it gets broken.”
During times when FECWS is open on multiple days, guests will often leave their belongings behind and leave the site.
“If you have a camp and everything you own is there, and you need to go to town for whatever reason, you don’t know if your stuff is still going to be there when you get back,” Burke said. “If they’re at the shelter, it’s definitely going to be there because there are people on site and the cabin is locked until they return.”
At that point, the cycle begins again until the weather warms, and the shelter closes until the next cold snap.
To keep the heat on when they do reopen, the volunteer- and donation-run FECWS is always on the lookout for help, Burke said, listing off needs:
“Socks and gloves are always appreciated. Jackets are always appreciated. Blankets and linens are always appreciated — twin size sheets. Volunteers to cook after the guests sleep, as we wipe down all the cabins. We always need a cleaning crew. And if they wanted to donate money, that is always, always, always helpful.”
FECWS’ president reported that the handwashing stations and porta-potties cost almost $500 a month, while electric bills can be just as high.
But mostly, Burke wanted people to come and observe the site.
“I welcome visits — I would love them to see where we’re sheltering people and how we shelter them, particularly the people who donate,” Burke said. “To me, it's quite impressive. If you go out there right at this moment, you will see that cigarette butts are in cans and there is no trash around. But there is, I think, a sense of pride and ownership. Before people left, they got the brooms and they got the dust pans and wipes and cleaned up.”
And she also hopes to share what she believes are the benefits of such programs.
“Emergency shelters can be not just for really foul weather,” Burke said. “It can be shelter for people who've been burned out. If we had several compounds, that would be a tremendous benefit … They are not ugly people. They are human beings who would like to have the same respect and compassion that we want for ourselves.”
To schedule a viewing of the Florence Emergency Cold Weather Shelter, volunteer services, or find information on openings, contact Burke at 541-590-5398. Updates can also be found online at the FECWS Facebook page, as well as social media sites from Siuslaw Outreach Services, the Siuslaw Public Library and the Siuslaw News.
Donations can be sent by check, made out to FECWS, and sent to Florence Emergency Cold Weather Shelter, PO Box 659, Florence OR 97439.