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Saturday, March 2, 2024
March 2, 2024

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‘All of us want help’: Unhoused residents in Clark County prepare for colder-than-normal winter

Officials urge those experiencing homelessness to use warming shelters

By , Columbian staff reporter, and
, Columbian staff reporter
3 Photos
A puddle is frozen over in the Burnt Bridge Creek encampment.
A puddle is frozen over in the Burnt Bridge Creek encampment. (Alexis Weisend/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Residents huddled around campfires to stay warm at a homeless camp along the Burnt Bridge Creek Trail during this week’s cold snap. Two men murmured to each other that the man who laid sick in a nearby tent could use some soup.

“The cold has been almost unbearable,” said Adam Kay, a man who lives in the camp who was dressed in a long-sleeve shirt, neck gaiter and gloves. “Everyone is sick out here.”

In the midst of what’s predicted to be a colder-than-usual winter, people experiencing unsheltered homelessness must combat the elements to survive.

When below-freezing temperatures hit Friday, the Council for the Homeless issued a Severe Weather Alert, opening up additional winter shelter beds and resources to those living unsheltered. Even temperatures around 40 degrees can be dangerous for people living outside, Clark County’s Deputy Health Officer Dr. Steven Krager said.

Where to donate:

Council for the Homeless needs new coats, gloves, wool socks, boots, hand warmers, unopened/unscented hygiene products, rain ponchos and single-serving individually wrapped snacks.

Deliver items to the Housing Solutions Center 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 2306 N.E. Andresen Road, Suite A, Vancouver.

How you can help our unhoused neighbors:

Beyond donations, community members can carry hand warmers or winter clothing, such as hats, with them to pass out to someone experiencing homelessness. Residents can also help those without phones find resources near them by calling 360-695-9677 or 211. Having extra bus passes on hand to distribute helps unhoused residents get to shelters and other warming centers, such as libraries.

How to get help:

To learn more about available shelter and housing assistance in Clark County, call the Council for the Homeless Housing Hotline at 360-695-9677.

Another option is 211, which helps locate shelter and transportation to shelter.

How to keep warm if you are living outside:

Clark County Public Health recommends that if you are sleeping outside or exposed to cold temperatures for a prolonged period of time to:

  • Cover yourself with as many layers as possible.
  • Put cardboard or a blanket between you and the ground.
  • If you’re in a sleeping bag, fill extra space with dry clothes or newspaper.
  • If you have access to hand warmers, sleep with them on your stomach or back.

Symptoms of hypothermia:

Shivering, exhaustion/feeling very tired, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred sleep, drowsiness are signs of hypothermia.

If you notice a person with these symptoms, get the person into warmth, give them warm drinks, warm the center of the body, keep them dry and get medical attention as soon as possible.


They have a much higher risk than the general population of developing hypothermia or frostbite due to exposure. Low temperatures can be even more threatening if people have certain health conditions, have exhausted their energy that day or aren’t protected from the elements well enough.

“That’s the concern when we have these longer, prolonged spells of cold,” Krager said. “Warming shelters are a Band-Aid of a solution. But it’s certainly better than nothing, and I hope people utilize them.”

Additional resources

Community organizations have come together to provide 100 additional shelter beds over the course of a week. (They trade off the days they provide beds.)

Many of those organizations are local churches, filling their rooms with beds for nighttime shelter. Living Hope Church and Refuel Washougal offer shelter for walk-ins during severe weather, although neither were open during the alert due to various circumstances such as staffing issues. Outreach teams handed out resources and let people know what shelters are available during the cold front.

The shelter beds also open additional pathways to get into housing.

Council for the Homeless recommends calling its Housing Hotline to get referred to a shelter, but some people in Vancouver’s homeless camps are unaware of the extra beds available during winter.

Even if they did, it’s difficult for them to get there.

Jacqueline Fritz who lives alongside Interstate 205 in east Vancouver said she doesn’t have access to the internet or a phone to call the hotline to get a referral to a shelter.

Her friend Shannon, who doesn’t want her last name used because of domestic violence concerns, said she wouldn’t want to go to a shelter anyway if she had to leave her boyfriend or cat behind.

Dressed in a thin, red hoodie, jeans and sneakers, Shannon wrapped her arms around her body and bounced her legs to keep warm. This will be her third winter homeless in Vancouver.

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“People die out here in this cold,” Shannon said. “There is absolutely no way to stay warm.”

Nighttime is especially dangerous for people living outside. It’s the coldest part of the day, and sleep is when the body stops regulating temperature.

“You can start to get confused and disoriented and tired,” said Krager, the county health officer. “And so you may not realize that you are having those early symptoms of hypothermia, go to sleep and potentially die.”

Keeping warm

Earlier this week at the Burnt Bridge Creek encampment, ashes from smoking fire pits rained onto discarded papers telling people they had to move out by Tuesday.

Residents of the camp are used to moving, but during the winter weather, it is more difficult, they said. If they are don’t move in time, the city may take their tents and other possessions.

One man packed and moved his belongings throughout the night Wednesday, when the temperature dropped to 25 degrees. One of the first things he did when he found a new place to live was pitch a small fire.

Many living outside use small fires to keep warm. Krager said that depending on the person, breathing in smoke for prolonged periods can have negative health impacts.

The city of Portland will not remove homeless camps during severe weather. The city of Vancouver does not have this as an official rule, although it usually gives more than 72 hours notice before removing a camp and handles camp removals on a case-by-case basis.

Burnt Bridge Creek Trail camp residents’ trash buildup usually triggers the notices. Even with ample warning, they said, it’s a pain to pack up and move their belongings.

But whether inside a shelter or living outside, people experiencing homelessness still need resources to stay warm and healthy this winter — especially as rain and freezing temperatures are expected later this week.

“They think we don’t want to get help, that we don’t want to leave,” Shannon said.

“All of us want help,” Fritz added.

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.