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St. Helens church to provide warm place to sleep

Columbia County Warming Center opening for 2 weeks in February


by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - The Columbia County Warming Center will be at Plymouth Presbyterian Church in St. Helens. The church is located on Sykes Road, about two blocks west of Highway 30.The Columbia County Warming Center will be opening for almost two weeks starting Sunday, Feb. 2.

The center, which is located at Plymouth Presbyterian Church in St. Helens, offers “a safe, clean, warm, welcoming” place to sleep for area residents who are “homeless or living in a cold or dangerous place,” an email from volunteer Maureen Sloan stated Sunday, Jan. 26.

“We’re trying to establish a place for people who are without homes or who have no heat in their homes to be when it gets cold,” said Jan Stites, who describes herself as the “unofficial head” of the all-volunteer effort.

The announcement that the center is opening this winter comes amid high temperatures well above the nationwide average in the region — and nearly two months after a major snowstorm socked south Columbia County and brought freezing temperatures to the area for about a week.

“I had a number of sleepless nights around that,” Stites lamented. “It just felt really, really sad that we weren’t in a position to open at a moment’s notice.”

Sloan said the volunteer-run warming center, which will close for the season Saturday, Feb. 15, can only do so much.

“This is the second year they’ve done it, and it’s a sort of thing in progress,” Sloan explained. “The whole thing is, they’re trying to work out the kinks, and hopefully by next year, we’ll be in a situation where we can open it when there’s particularly cold weather.”

Stites said she hopes the warming center can eventually, if not by this coming winter, arrange to open when temperatures drop below freezing any time between November and February. This year and last year, she said, the time period for which the warming center is open was prescheduled based on historical weather data.

Hours are from 6:30 p.m. to 8 a.m., with people who wish to spend the night being asked to check in by 7:30 p.m. and leave by 8 a.m. the next morning. Sloan said pets must stay outside in their owners’ vehicles.

The maximum capacity per night is for 20 people, who will get accommodations on a “first come, first served” basis, Stites said.

Stites said she does not know how many people will stay at the warming center this year, but she noted that during the two weeks early last year that the center was open, on only one night were there no guests. The most people the center hosted at one time during that period was seven, she added.

The warming center is not offering full meals for those who spend the night.

“There’s not the capacity for that,” Sloan said. “But there will be warm drinks and snacks in the evening and ... warm drinks and a light breakfast in the morning.”

More than 40 volunteers have signed up for hosting duties at the warming center, Stites said, while more than 160 in total have helped with the overall effort.

The warming center is affiliated this year with the St. Helens-based nonprofit group Community Action Team Inc. Stites said it is still seeking donations, both of money and prepackaged food, as well as volunteers to help out or spread the word in parts of the county with substantial homeless populations.