Pendleton’s small safety net for its unhoused residents will be challenged this winter.
Run by the nonprofit Neighbor 2 Neighbor Pendleton, the Pendleton Warming Station provides free beds during the cold weather months at a small facility near the city’s downtown area.
The coronavirus pandemic forced the warming station to temporarily close its shelter and distribute motel room vouchers instead. But even as COVID-19 restrictions have lifted, the warming station has struggled to return to its traditional operation.
“The COVID thing really threw us a curve,” Neighbor 2 Neighbor executive director Dwight Johnson said. “We lost three-quarters of our volunteers. We’re down about 25 volunteers.”
Neighbor 2 Neighbor relies on volunteers to process lodgers as they come in and monitor the facility throughout the night. In addition to the lack of staff, Johnson said his organization has kept the shelter closed because the board wants to protect the health of its remaining volunteers, many of whom are older adults.
Health officials worry that this holiday season could bring a “tripledemic,” a surge in sick people spreading a combination of COVID-19, influenza and RSV. While Neighbor 2 Neighbor waits to see if it can recruit more volunteers, the group is continuing to offer motel vouchers.
Pendleton’s unhoused population is still demonstrating a need. In a town of about 17,000, Johnson said Neighbor 2 Neighbor has been distributing vouchers to an average of 14 people per night since they resumed the program on Nov. 7.
While Portland often grabs the headlines for its response to homelessness, Eastern Oregon communities like Pendleton are dealing with similar issues. In 2020, the city of Pendleton restricted camps to certain areas of town and prohibited sleeping on sidewalks, alleys and other public rights-of-way.
Earlier this week, the East Oregonian reported that the Oregon Department of Transportation cleared out camps along Interstate 84 in the Pendleton area.
In nearby La Grande, The Observer reported that the Union County Warming Station went from not knowing where it was going to house its operations to finding a last-minute solution by leasing a vacant assisted living facility.
Homelessness has been a longstanding issue in the region, and the infrastructure to support unhoused residents often takes the form of seasonal warming stations that close their doors to overnight stays once the cold weather season ends.
There are efforts underway to bolster that infrastructure. In 2021, the nonprofit Community Action Program of East Central Oregon was granted more than $1 million to turn an empty Pendleton motel property into transitional housing for unhoused residents.
And in Hermiston, a group called the Stepping Stones Alliance is partnering with local governments to build a housing center in western Umatilla County. The targeted opening date is in March.