During January’s deadly cold in Oregon, two Catholic Charities of Oregon workers risked their safety to volunteer at area warming shelters.
Honor Hehn and Korin Kanzler traveled to the shelters in unprecedented slipperiness, braving falls in treacherous ice left by freezing rain.
Fifteen people died in the area. Broken wrists, elbows and hips surged in the state in mid-January when ice fell over a layer of snow amid temperatures in the teens.
Rose Bak, chief program officer for Catholic Charities of Oregon, thanked the two members of the Housing Transitions team in a note to all staff of the 90-year-old nonprofit.
“Your willingness to brave the elements and travel in dangerous conditions to care for the most vulnerable in our community is a great gift,” said Bak, who previously worked for Multnomah County and was part of the team that ran warming shelters. “I know the folks who were able to come in and get warm and dry for a few hours appreciated your being there. It is not an overstatement to say your work saved lives this week.”
Hehn is lead outreach case manager who served at the shelter at Imago Dei Church. Kanzler is a housing case manager who helped at Ascension Catholic Church.
A sign alerts people in need that the church is serving as an emergency shelter.
Warming shelters can be tough places, where guests’ trauma and suffering can rise up quickly. Hehn and Kanzler witnessed untreated mental illness, respiratory sickness and many physical wounds and skin diseases.
“And knowing that when the temperature rises just a few degrees folks have to leave is also extremely traumatic,” said Bak. “Working in those shelters is a life changing experience.”
Cots fill the community hall at Ascension Parish in Southeast Portland. The church hosted an emergency warming shelter Jan. 19-24. About 100 people found refuge there as temperatures dropped into the teens along with snow and a dangerous glaze of ice.
Hehn said the time at the shelter was smooth, though the ice outside was downright slippery and dangerous. Hehn popped up from a fall to help with breakfast, warm coffee and sessions to help people what to do next.
After her shift as Ascension, Kanzler had a heavy heart. But a few days later, she was filled with comfort and peace, thinking about divine steadfastness: “I saw God in the eyes of the volunteers and heard him in the people we helped as they said, ‘Thank you.’”