GRANTS PASS, Ore. -- Leaders at a public forum held at Grants Pass Council Chambers Wednesday night said nearly 1,700 people are homeless in Josephine County. Many told stories about meeting people who lost fingers and toes and even feet to frost bite last winter. Other cities around southern Oregon are already starting to open warming centers to prevent this from happening. Grants Pass can't do that. That's because the city doesn't have a warming center. Grants Pass is the only city in Oregon that doesn't. Leaders trying to put an end to homelessness said money wasn't an issue. They're struggling to find a place that would open their doors to the homeless at night.
"Warming centers give people a safe place to be so that they’re safe, the community is safe, they don’t get sick and people don’t die,” said United Community Action Network’s Chief Operating Officer Kelly Wessels. “We don't see homelessness easily. A lot of the people in need are the people that serve us lunch. They're the people who take care of us. They are working individuals but we just don't have enough housing in our community to house them all."
Brian Bouteller feels the opposite. He runs the Gospel Rescue Mission in Grants Pass. The organization helps homeless men and women get back on their feet again. Bouteller said winter warming centers only help the homeless for one cold night and don't fix the overall homelessness issue. He believes they actually enable homelessness.
"It actually incentivizes somebody not to have to change,” Bouteller said. “They take away the natural and good disincentive of being cold and having nowhere to go which is the disincentive of making the choice to be homeless. That's actually a good thing that should be driving them to change their minds."
Kelly Wessels said the point of a warmer center is to just help people when it's cold. It is just the beginning of how the community can help those experiencing homelessness.
"A warming center is really just an emergency response no different than if you had a fire, had people evacuated, and you needed a place for people to be temporarily. It's a part of the continuum of housing support and assistance. It's not the only silver bullet of it all. It needs to be a part of it," Wessels said.