Shelter from the storm
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges to many community members — including those in Sandy and Estacada who are seeking shelter.
When a snow and ice storm made its way through the region in February, many of the typical warming shelters in both communities were unable to open because of COVID-19 safety requirements for social distancing.
Initially, the closest warming centers were in Oregon City and Molalla, both of which required lengthy bus rides with at least one transfer. However, as the storm progressed, a shelter was opened at the Alton Collins Retreat Center in Eagle Creek.
Three community members went to the retreat center's shelter, but they eventually needed to be relocated to hotels because the center lost power and water.
The difficulties caused by lack of shelter and affordable housing in areas of rural Clackamas County like Estacada and Sandy have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"(Finding shelter) is tricky because of COVID. There are not a lot of places in a good year, and even fewer places now," said Debra Bufton, director of the Estacada Area Food Bank. "If you're chronically wet in 40-degree weather, there's a pretty high risk for a health event."
By the numbers
According to Clackamas County's most recent point-in-time count for unsheltered individuals, which was conducted in 2019, 48 people in Sandy and 32 in Estacada were homeless.
A 2020 survey of the Estacada Food Bank's customers found that 32 were camping, 20 lived in vehicles and 28 categorized themselves as unhoused.
"The challenge here is that it's not as visible. People live on other's property, or in the forest. There are a significant number of people without stable housing or who are housing vulnerable," said Bufton.
"Sometimes it's easier for people to remain under the radar in rural communities. There's a vulnerability that comes with being under the radar. The ice storm is a good example of that," added Erika Silver, human services manager for Clackamas County Social Services.
At Sandy Community Action Center, Director Kirsten Pitzer says she has seen a decrease in unhoused clients coming through, especially in winter months. The action center has numerous programs aimed at feeding and aiding those in need in the Sandy area, including a lunchbox program, which provides frozen meals and a microwave for people to use.
While Pitzer said she typically sees at least eight to 12 unhoused clients visit for a microwave burrito or other services. This winter, that number dwindled to two.
"We have people we see regularly we're not seeing," Pitzer said. "We did get a bunch of new people last year who were drifting, but when they realized there weren't resources, unfortunately, they left. Besides food, I don't have a lot to offer them."
Human Services Manager Silver noted that across Clackamas County, many warming centers remained closed this year or operated at reduced capacity because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The warming centers also rely on volunteers, and many of the volunteers are in a vulnerable group," she said.
Pitzer added that she understands organizations being hesitant to take on hosting warming shelters even without COVD in the picture because of the liability.
"Just figuring out 'What are the rules?' and 'How do you enforce those for adults?' is a challenge," Pitzer explained. "People are hesitant to take that on. It's a huge, very complex situation."
Some churches are still working to connect community members with resources for shelter. Through a program called Park Safe, Estacada First Baptist Church allows those who are temporarily struggling with being unhoused to park vehicles in their parking lot.
"Someone may have lost their job and need a safe space to get life under control," said Brent Dodrill, pastor at Estacada First Baptist Church. Since the church launched the program three years ago, five people have used it. Typically, participants stay for three months at a time.
Churches are also most likely to host community warm meals, but Bufton noted that many of them have been unable to occur this year because of the pandemic.
Paul Stone, leader of the Sandy Ministerial Association and pastor at Living Way Fellowship Church said his congregation used to offer two hot meals a week, which they provided via takeout or delivery at the beginning of the pandemic.
"Eventually though, we had to stop because our volunteers were people who were more at-risk," Stone explained. "We've been scratching our heads on how to restart."
Stone's church at 39300 Dubarko Road, Sandy, does still allow for people to "park safe" as well when the need arises.
Silver said that moving the Alton Collins Retreat Center's occupants to hotels is representative of a larger push in Clackamas County to provide community members with non-congregate options for sheltering. Rather than being gathered in one large space, individuals or families are connected with more private options like hotel rooms.
The county is working with FEMA to help fund the program, which started last spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, 153 people have been provided with hotel rooms.
In Sandy, Pastor Stone says the sheltering conversation has become "cyclical," in an unfortunate way.
The question of "Who can host people?" is "nothing new," Stone says. This February, when forecasts showed temperatures dropping drastically with the year's first storm, Stone said the question came up again.
"People asked me, when I reached out to others, and everyone had the same answer: 'I don't know,'" he explained.
At the city level, Sandy City Council has been in the preliminary phases of creating a social services taskforce for about a year. In July 2020, Sandy resident and Portland State University student Maggie Gilman Holm presented a strategic social services plan to the City Council, seeing the need for the implementation of resources in Sandy to be more intentional.
"Today more than ever, we need to find innovative and productive ways to tackle complex issues residents are facing," Gilman Holm told Sandy City Council, adding that her research explored several "root causes of some of our most complicated challenges such as homelessness, addiction, mental health challenges and domestic violence."
Gilman Holm went on to explain that adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse, neglect or a dysfunctional household setting, often play a significant role in these challenges into adulthood, indirectly impacting the community and pulling on community resources.
Gilman Holm recommended the city create a task force comprised of leaders of the community and relevant community members to target social services needed to make Sandy a more "resilient" community and let them help shape the social services plan.
"We have people, and we have places," Stone said. "We need guidance in mobilizing people, educating those people and (creating) a framework to start with. It's just as indicting on us that when we do have conversations about this every year, it's almost always too late. We have to start asking those hard, inconvenient questions now, so we have an answer next year."
This article is part one of a series about homelessness and the absence of related resources in the Sandy and Estacada areas of rural Clackamas County. Check out The Sandy Post and Estacada News next week for the second installment of this series.
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