A volunteer welcomes a guest to Lane Events Center in Eugene during one of Egan Warming Centers’ 31 activations in 2022-23.

The 2022-23 operational season for Egan Warming Centers, administered by St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County (SVdP), concluded March 31 after a long, cold, especially trying winter for local unsheltered individuals and those striving to protect them.

In fact, Egan opened its Eugene and Springfield shelter sites for 31 nights between November and March — most in the lifesaving effort’s 14-year history. That mark eclipsed the previous single-season record of 25 activations for the program, which formed in early 2009 after the Dec. 16, 2008 freezing death of a homeless man, Major Thomas Egan, in Eugene.

This winter didn’t bring enduring deep freezes like the one in which Maj. Egan succumbed from hypothermia, nor the harsh ice storms that gripped Eugene-Springfield several other times in the past decade. Yet, a greater than usual number of sub-freezing nights this winter met the threshold for Egan activation (meaning forecast lows below 30 degrees F).

“Thirty-one nights is a new record, and a new challenge for us, but we shouldn’t forget that it was most challenging for the people we serve,” says Tim Black, SVdP’s winter strategies and emergency response coordinator.

Season by the numbers

A network of 760 trained Egan volunteers worked more than 19,500 combined hours to operate seven different warming sites during the season. They provided 7,500 overnight stays for 1,465 unique guests, accounting for those who sheltered with Egan multiple times during the season.

By comparison, Egan activated only 13 times in 2021-22 and nine times in 2020-21, with volunteer hours totaling 6,150 and 3,270, respectively, during those milder winters.

During an activation, volunteers open each warming center in the evening and operate it through morning. They provide guests with sleeping pads and blankets, warm drinks and meals, heartwarming hospitality, basic first aid, and donations of gloves, socks and other winter gear needed to survive on the streets in the inescapable cold and wet of an Oregon winter.

COVID’s continuing strain on system

Compounding the challenges of this long cold season, Egan’s volunteer network remained a fraction of its former size after several years of contraction brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Egan lost the services of many experienced volunteers because of age or other exposure risk factors. The program also lost and never regained access to many previously utilized shelter host sites.

Generally, Egan has stretched to meet demand every winter since the pandemic began. The low-barrier emergency shelters have never turned anyone away, but early this season, two available warming locations couldn’t open because of a lack of volunteers.

“We just don’t have enough volunteers or sites,” Black stresses. “But I continue to feel thankful that we’re in a community that cares, and where many organizations work closely with St. Vincent de Paul and Egan. There’s a lack of resources, but no lack of compassion or effort. We also have some great new volunteers who stepped up into leadership positions; they’re organized, professional and upbeat, and their commitment and support are really inspirational.”

Essential community support

Beyond the contributions of individual volunteers, and behind-the-scene support from SVdP in terms of staffing, supplies and logistics, the Egan program receives support from a broad coalition of local government, community members, service providers, nonprofits, and faith and activist communities.

This essential support system includes the variety of organizations that made their facilities available to serve as Egan sites this season — Lane Events Center; the City of Springfield; Trinity United Methodist Church; Episcopal Church of the Resurrection; First United Methodist Church; First Christian Church; and the Eugene Mission.

Preparing for the next cold season

Going forward, Black expects continuing challenges for Egan Warming Centers to secure and train enough volunteers so the program can be prepared for increasingly unpredictable cold seasons — and to identify additional new facilities for ongoing warming-site use.

The opioid addiction crisis affecting so many in the homeless population, worsened by the growing threat of dangerous fentanyl mixed with a variety of illicit drugs, also creates new complications for the Egan program and its volunteers.

“It’s getting harder because we’re seeing increased drug abuse, increased trauma and increased numbers of people. And fentanyl is so prevalent; we had to administer Narcan on a number of occasions at our sites this season,” Black says, referring to the medication that can rapidly reverse an opioid overdose. “Thank goodness we have it and it works.”

Now, while he’s thankful for the opportunity to breathe a bit easier at the end of an exhausting cold season, Black hopes the community doesn’t forget the need to prepare for winter even through the blessedly warmer days of spring and summer.

“We can’t just sit around and wait until its cold again,” he says. “If anyone wants to find out more about volunteering, we’re happy to talk to people throughout the year, and will also accept donations of gloves and winter clothes all year. Because it will be cold again before we know it.”

More information: See a video about volunteering with Egan at bit.ly/EganVideo. Also, visit eganwarmingcenters.org; like Egan Warming Centers on Facebook; and text the word “Join” to 541-730-3071 to receive alerts whenever an Egan-related announcement is made.