A Shelter from the Cold
Not the Retiring Type
When lights went dark and furnaces grew cold in the throes of December’s icy storm, our home somehow escaped that cruelty. We turned down the sheets on a spare bed and invited friends to come in from the cold.
It’s what you do for people you know. For people you love and care about. Offer refuge from bitter weather and hostile conditions when your own home is still warm and light.
Laoni Davis takes the gesture of kindness much further. When the weather turns harsh she offers warmth and shelter to folks she doesn’t know.
“I think the way a society takes care of the least among us says a lot about what we are as a society,” she says. “There were many times in my life when someone helped me. It seems right to honor that by being there for others.”
As a volunteer for Egan Warming Centers, Davis opens the door on chilly nights to guests that most of us never see—members of the local homeless population. Each one, she says, arrives with a story. Each one deserves a listener and a safe place to sleep.
“It is very important for people to be able to talk and to be heard,” says Davis, 74. “Each night I carry home such richness from tales told. We hear stories about childhood, early adult life and we talk to ‘philosopher kings’ who have strong ideas about what constitutes a human being, the nature of society, and God.
For three winters, Davis has volunteered at the warming center in Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in south Eugene. With space for 40 homeless guests when temperatures drop below 30, it is the smallest of nine warming centers in Eugene-Springfield.
“Our aim, every night, is to make these people feel valued and to give them a hot meal and a night when they feel safe and warm,” she explains. “That is the goal of each shift.
Until retirement in 2000, Davis was office manager and ophthalmic technician in a Eugene medical practice with her physician spouse. Even in that position she stayed alert for opportunities to help people get the medical care and financial support they deserved.
She looks back to her childhood in the Los Angeles area to explain the compassion she holds for folks who encounter hard times.
“My father was a laborer and we ate in union soup lines a great number of times during my early childhood,” says Davis. “My parents had fears of not being able to pay monthly bills, but we always had a roof over our heads. I am grateful for that.”
The guests she meets at the warming center bear little resemblance to the “travelers” parked on downtown Eugene streets, Davis says.
“So many of these homeless are invisible,” she says of the people she welcomes on cold winter nights. Growing up as I did, I had no illusion about who this population is. A lot of these people are very capable of contributing to the community. I think it is easy to forget that any of us could be homeless given the right set of circumstances.”
Health and medical complications, mental turmoil, a job lost to downsizing, a veteran felled by the impact of war—Davis hears the stories and recognizes the human losses.
“I see myself in every one of these people,” she says. “There is satisfaction in trying to meet every need of each person and making them truly feel like valued guests for the night.”
Committed Seniors Mentor Young Contributors
Each time the warming centers open, 350 volunteers turn out to staff the nine Eugene-Springfield sites. Each center offers a hot evening meal, breakfast, and a sack lunch in addition to shelter. On the busiest night so far this winter, the centers housed a total of 485 homeless guests. Close to half of those easing the night for guests are retirement-age volunteers who serve shifts of 3-4 hours, and often stay longer to offer help and hospitality.
“Our community has benefited from seniors imparting their wisdom to younger folk who are working towards creating a better community for all of us,” says Egan program director Shelley Corteville. Corteville credits the mentorship and guidance of long-time local activist Marion Malcolm with expanding her own awareness and involvement in the program.
“Just because you are retired doesn’t mean you are ready to feel useless, ” says Malcolm, 77. “I still want to do something that makes a difference.”
In 2008, Marion Malcolm was determined to make a difference in housing options for the area’s homeless population during that winter’s dangerously cold December. She persuaded a Springfield minister to offer homeless residents sanctuary in a church for six nights that month, creating an emergency shelter from a harsh winter.
The warmth of that shelter did not reach Major Thomas Egan, the homeless veteran who froze to death in that same cold spell at age 60. His death underscored the need for winter shelter and led to establishment of Egan Warming Centers in 2009.
Malcolm grew up on the east coast but migrated to Oregon in 1966. Passionate humanitarian values led her into 25 years of work with the Community Alliance of Lane County, previously called Clergy and Laymen Concerned (CALC).
A Sense of Family at Core of Service
“What motivated me was a strong core belief in human rights,” she says. “My parents get the credit for that. For them, it was about being Christian, and not just on Sunday mornings. That’s where I learned my values. I never thought my responsibilities ended with my nuclear family. I was raised to believe in something bigger called a human family.”
Malcolm’s sense of family connection extends beyond the downtrodden. It includes a philosophical kinship with Eleanor Roosevelt. In the aftermath of World War II, Roosevelt chaired a commission charged with defining inherent human rights. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by all 48 members of the United Nations.
Years of activist involvement have prepared Malcolm to cite from memory the commitments set forth in the Declaration. I turned to the Internet to confirm key wording:
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…”
The words inscribe a code that Malcolm has adhered to both in work and in retirement. After years of service, she still takes a shift at an Egan Warming Center shelter in Springfield when temperatures drop below 30.
“I have been an organizer for a long time and I don’t know how to turn that off,” she says. “I am continually reminded of the urgency and the inadequacy of our efforts.”
The value for volunteers at a warming center, she says, seems similar to what participants gain in a Peace Corps experience—they return to regular lives with an expanded view of the world.
“I think anyone who works at Egan gets an enlarged perspective,” she says. “They know that Egan guests are people with rights and a story. Regardless of issues, they are people who deserve a roof overhead at night.
Carolyn Scott Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer. Contact her at email@example.com.