By day they are everywhere, in pockets small or large. They are seen and sometimes they are dodged. Mostly, they are ignored.
By night they scatter, in pockets small or tiny, the better to cloister themselves against the elements — which include predators. At this they are not seen. They are forgotten.
They are the homeless throughout the nation. They hide in plain sight.
In Eugene that means downtown, the Eugene Public Library, the porch of a temporarily abandoned home or the banks of the Willamette River — or just the sidewalk.
If you are homeless, isolated to the point where you are locked out of everywhere and exhausted beyond belief, sometimes the sidewalk is inviting.
It’s shameful how America treats its homeless men, women and children, and I’ve seen both sides of it. For the bulk of 1989 and into the first two months of 1990, I, too, was homeless and on the streets in Eugene. It was ugly and taxing. Where’s the next meal coming from? Where am I sleeping tonight?
Many things went into my homelessness, and many more things happened which allowed me to escape that vortex. It is not a simple story. It never is for the homeless.
The homeless need special care, and one answer is the Egan Warming Center, run by St. Vincent de Paul. The warming center is named after Thomas Egan, once an Army major who served in Korea and received a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon in 1983.
This month marks the 10-year anniversary of that moment when Egan, partially covered in snow, was found dead on Blair Boulevard. Hypothermia due to environmental cold exposure was ruled as the cause of death.
Egan Warming Center sites for the homeless are open when temperatures are forecast to drop below 30 degrees, from mid-November to mid-March. It can be several days in a row or just a few days in the year. Every winter season is different.
I have volunteered with Egan off and on for the past five years. I have done the evening shift, the overnight shift and the morning rush (as I like to call it). Most of my time with Egan has been spent at Central Lutheran Church, but I have worked at other churches.
Mostly, I have seen quiet men and women looking for blankets and mats, as well as for threads of dignity. I have seen amazing grace. I have seen homeless men and women helping each other, as if to say, “We are in this together.”
One man read to me passages from the Bible for more than an hour. Another man talked my ear off for almost three hours about the glory days of the San Francisco 49ers. And no one cares for their dogs quite like the men and women who bring their canines to an Egan Warming Center site. These dogs are much more than faithful companions.
To be sure, the flipside to working at an Egan Warming Center site is that you see first-hand the anxiety, anger, depression and general confusion of the homeless. I have heard the snarling. I have seen fights break out. I have seen one man pull out a knife.
Thankfully, nothing happened in the knife incident, and the man was escorted out.
It was a reminder, though, that when your life is reduced to a backpack (and maybe a bike), simple survival means everything. You will take nothing for granted.
It is glorious and humbling work. It is a reminder of how quickly any of us can slide to the bottom, and it is an opportunity to remind the homeless (our fellow citizens) that they are not forgotten and that they shouldn’t have to hide.
Egan Warming Centers always need volunteers. If you are interested, I encourage you to visit eganwarmingcenter.com and sign up for the training.
By Dan Buckwalter, Eugene Weekly‘s calendar and copy editor.