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News / Churches & Religion

Clark County shelters, nonprofits stretched to limit by cold

Churches, agencies stay open to give homeless people places to keep warm

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter, and
Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: January 20, 2024, 6:05am

As many people across Clark County struggled to leave home during this week’s icy conditions, people experiencing homelessness desperately sought to get indoors. They overwhelmed warming shelters as freezing temperatures persisted.

Council for the Homeless issued a severe weather alert Jan. 12 and extended it multiple times. The alert activates the emergency shelter system in Clark County, opening up additional beds. The snow and ice closed libraries and other places where homeless people usually seek warmth, so some overnight shelters stayed open 24/7, including those at St. Andrew Lutheran and River City churches.

“We’d think, ‘It’s going to break tomorrow,’ and then, ‘Oh no.’ We really didn’t expect this to happen. It has been tough for everybody,” said Jane Seidel, a shelter volunteer at St. Andrew Church.

River City Church’s winter shelter has capacity for 15 people. But on Wednesday night, 75 people kept warm overnight at the church. The next day, 225 people sought refuge there at some point.

How to Help

“We’re actually not set up to be a shelter like this. But we responded because we saw a need,” said Rev. Ryan Sidhom of River City Church. “We’re stretched very thin, but we did what we did because we wanted to make sure everybody was cared for and kept out of the cold.”

St. Andrew Lutheran Church’s overnight shelter serves families, couples and single women. Seidel said one of the main reasons the shelter extended its hours is because schools have been closed this week.

“We have a lot of children staying with us,” Seidel said. “We’re not going to ask a mom with two kids to take all their stuff and go when it’s 32 degrees out.”

Delicate balance

The icy conditions thinned the ranks of volunteers and staff at warming shelters.

“Volunteers have been awesome. But there are just very few of them,” Sidhom said. “Either they can’t get out (of their homes) or there are other reasons. At one point, we had 75 guests and two volunteers.”

Volunteers soaked people’s feet in warm water and shuttled them to the hospital for medical emergencies.

River City Church closed its shelter Friday after being open for nine straight days.

Other organizations also worked to meet the needs of those left out in the cold.

“The winter weather storm required (Council for the Homeless) and partners to strike a delicate balance between helping people with critical needs and keeping staff and partners safe,” said Charlene Welch, the nonprofit’s spokesperson.

Welch said the council worked with other nonprofits and churches to hand out food, blankets, clothing and some motel vouchers to people living outside this week. She said nearly all cold weather supplies and resources were exhausted this week.

“The COVID era was certainly a time where you learn how to pivot quickly,” said Jessica Lightheart, Share’s communications director. “We will always find a way to stay open.”

Only a blanket

For those who can’t make it to warming shelters, the freezing cold — temperatures dipped to 15 degrees overnight Tuesday — is a matter of life or death.

Matt Waters sat by a highway exit in east Vancouver on Friday afternoon, bundled in sweaters and wearing a Batman mask, which protected him from the slush spraying from passing cars. Some stopped to hand him a few dollars. Others yelled insults.

He’s been homeless for so many years that he’s lost count. But this has been one of the coldest weeks of his life.

Waters sleeps under a building’s ledge with only a blanket because he’s afraid a tent would be taken by the city. The nearest warming shelter is miles away. He’s tried to go into stores to get warm.

“If you don’t have any money, they kick you out,” Waters said.

Only Arby’s let him in during the worst of the weather.

Others in east Vancouver who can’t make it to warming shelters have been struggling to survive the cold while sleeping outside, he said.

“The women shouldn’t be out here,” Waters said.

Thursday night, he slept on the street as temperatures dropped to 33 degrees.

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.