Cold snap raises warming worries

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WALLA WALLA — Health, emergency and public safety officials in the Valley began scrambling Thursday to get shelter in place for homeless people.

This weekend’s anticipated bitterly-cold weather will pose a danger for those who cannot get indoors to warm up, said Harvey Crowder, administrator for Walla Walla County Public Health Department.

Crowder said there was some discussion this morning about declaring a county state of emergency. That process, however, affects emergency funnding and purchasing, said Jim Duncan, director of Walla Walla County Emergency Management department.

The Blue Mountain chapter of the American Red Cross said it could provide cots and blankets at First Congregational Church, 73 S. Palouse St. The church agreed to open its doors into this weekend.

Walla Walla has not had a plan in place for “warming stations,” Duncan said.

“The only program I can find in Washington state is in Spokane, as part of the city’s programs and it is city funded ... so they have a model to look at for the future. But for this weekend we need to deal with the problem at hand.”

Duncan was headed into a meeting with area agencies this morning to hammer out details, he said.

Warming stations, or centers, typically provide short-term protection from severe weather, to prevent death or injuries, such as frostbite. Those who access the station lack other options to escape the cold. That population includes those who are homeless, but warming centers also function to help others during power failures or times of natural disasters, according to Internet sources.

In some cities, warming places offer hot beverages and simple food. Some are in heated buildings or situated inside large tents and heated with patio heaters.

In Spokane, warming stations open for business when temperatures hit 20 degrees or lower, said Sheila Morley, program manager for the city’s Community, Housing and Human Services Department.

“We consider them an extension of our shelter system,” she said. “They are open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. People on the streets can come in the nighttime if they have no other place to be.”

Spokane’s program began in 2006 and has three locations, which allows separation of single men, single women and families, Morley said.

Her office is working quickly today to ensure those needing the stations in the current cold snap can get there via bus rather than walking, she added. “We don’t want them doing that.”

Here it is not simply an issue of finding the right space, but also getting volunteers with training in mass sheltering — “getting someone to mind the store,” Duncan said.

To get official warming station information for Walla Walla, call emergency dispatch at 527-1960.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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