Four nights a week, the Honda Accord sat in a darkened corner of the Cornelius Walmart parking lot, its windows fogged from the breath of four people sleeping inside.
Ruben Serna, his wife Sasha and their two young sons, Bentley and Ruben Jr., are homeless, and see no likelihood of that changing anytime soon.
“All we’ve been doing is saving money for a place,” said Ruben, who recently started working at a car wash in Cornelius. “We’re trying to find an apartment but I only make minimum wage.”
Monday nights, however, they leave their car and join a line of people outside the Forest Grove United Church of Christ.
Some in the small crowd are bedraggled and unkempt, their clothes and skin stained with dirt and sweat. Some offer bits of casual conversation, an occasional laugh, soft guitar music. If it’s windy or rainy, everyone huddles close to the building for protection.
The doors, they know, will open at 7 p.m. Inside, a hot meal, beds and blankets await them. Some have slept on the ground, in bushes, along sidewalks and in cold cars all weekend as they waited for Monday night to arrive.
Since the mid-1990s, Forest Grove’s UCC has served as a severe-weather shelter, offering beds to homeless people when the temperature dips below 32 degrees or above 90.
This year, there have been two big improvements to the program. First, the UCC began opening regularly every Monday and Tuesday, regardless of the weather. And second, it had a local partner: Sonrise Church, which opened Wednesdays — until March 2, when both shelters closed for the season.
Other church shelters in Tigard and Sherwood stay open Fridays and Sundays until late March. But most of the Forest Grove shelter guests are local to western Washington County, said UCC Pastor Jennifer Yocum, and have trouble traveling that far for lack of a vehicle or means to buy a bus pass.
“I can’t sleep when I know the names of people who are going to struggle to find a safe place to sleep, especially when it’s cold,” Yocum said. “When you have to scrape ice off your car, think about the people who were sleeping outside.”
Having more to offer
In December 2008, the same year Yocum became pastor, a huge storm rocked the Portland area, with several feet of snow accumulating along Interstate-5 and throughout the suburbs. This led the UCC to remain open for more days than its congregation expected, which resulted in volunteer burnout.
“Providing shelter is hard,” Yocum said, both physically and emotionally.
The partnership reinvigorated the shelter, but by last year, interest began to wane again.
Yocum struggled to find volunteers and the shelter opened fewer days as a result.
“Switching to one night per week when it was still cold and wet was heartbreaking,” Yocum said. “We knew we could do more. We — as a community, people who love Jesus, people who take the gospel seriously — could do more.”
So in spring 2015, she decided to reach out to Sonrise Pastor Rudy Tinoco.
‘They’re not scary people’
According to Tinoco, the original plan for Sonrise when Yocum first approached him was to offer meals and give away bags of soda cans for people to recycle and collect a few bucks.
If Sonrise could recruit any volunteers through this new effort, they’d send them to Yocum and the UCC to help out. “I wanted her to feel supported,” Tinoco said.
But then something unexpected happened.
A huge number of people — more than 50 — showed up for this season’s volunteer orientation, Yocum said.
Because the volunteer turnout was so great, Tinoco chose to open Sonrise’s own shelter on Wednesdays — with each church sharing its volunteer base.
Tinoco was ready for some of the challenges: washing blankets, buying beds, collecting clothes and food donations. But he didn’t realize just how large the undertaking would be.
“The greatest challenge came from finding volunteers to stay the night,” he said.
“They’re not scary people,” Gonzalez-Cress said. “They’re humans who want to be dry, want to be fed, and want someone to talk to — just like everybody else, really.”
“We had under 10 people the first night we opened in December,” Tinoco said. But as word spread that a Wednesday shelter was being offered, that number increased to more than 20 every Wednesday for the past five weeks.
‘Where are you gonna go?’
There were enough volunteers and space that Sonrise never had to turn anyone away, Tinoco said.
But with room for a maximum of 23 people, the UCC occasionally had to shut its doors with folks still outside on particularly cold nights when the turnout was the greatest.
Sometimes people were upset, Yocum said. “Of course there were incidents. People are people. Sometimes that means there are moments of frustration that require de-escalation. That kind of thing is not uncommon.”
Yocum said she believes that because the shelter was on a more regular schedule, guests counted on it being open. When turned away — especially if they’d traveled from some far-off cranny of metro Portland — they were upset.
Sometimes the church would purchase bus tickets for guests who didn’t make it through the doors so they could search for shelters in other areas, she said.
The UCC’s last open night, Tuesday, March 1, was particularly difficult — not because any guests were turned away but because “folks were coming in soaked,” Yocum said. “Pants, coats, everything was just wet.” It was the same at Sonrise on Wednesday, March 2.
“When I’d ask someone, ‘Where are you gonna go next week?’ they could only reply, ‘I don’t know,’” Yocum said.
In the previous five years, the UCC maintained an average of four to 10 guests per night. This year, it saw 16 to 18 guests per night.
At Sonrise, “we’re already planning to do it next year,” Tinoco said. “And we’d love to expand our coverage to Sundays as well.”
Tinoco’s dream is to see more churches in Forest Grove coordinate to collectively offer seven shelter days per week.
Just in this short season, Sonrise has learned a lot about running a shelter, said Tinoco, who believes other churches could easily get up to speed. “I wish I had acted sooner,” Tinoco said.
There’s little red tape involved, he said. Raising awareness is key but “I don’t want to guilt people into doing it,” he said.
“Jesus said we demonstrate our love for him by demonstrating our love for the homeless. When we’re not doing that, I think we have to question if we really follow Jesus. It’s a tough message, but I think that’s what it boils down to.”
“I’d be doing my church a disservice by not preaching that a little harder,” he added. “I spent two nights at the shelter but that’s not enough. It has to be reflected by me first.”
“The Gospel message is about love — self-sacrificing love,” Yocum said. “We’ll be having significant conversations revisiting and revising shelter operations for next year.”
Meanwhile, Ruben Serna and his family head back outside, hoping to raise their income somehow.
Ruben can’t sell plasma due to address restrictions. Sasha can’t work a steady job because they can’t afford daycare and someone needs to pick up the boys after school. She takes day labor jobs when she can.
With the Forest Grove shelters closing earlier this month, the little family hoped to get housing through the Community Action Family Shelter in Hillsboro.
They’ve been on the waiting list for months.
Portraits of local homeless people detail struggle to survive, stay warm
A scar runs across the top of Pete Mauger’s shaved head and his large, meaty hands look capable of crushing rocks to powder.
But his voice is soft and his words are thoughtful and articulate.
Mauger is 33. His father died in 2008. His 2-year-old daughter succumbed to cerebral palsy in 2009. His mother passed in 2014.
To escape all his hurt, Mauger said, he turned to methamphetamines. He dropped out of Portland Community College, where he’d been studying to become a welder. Then he dropped out of family life with his girlfriend and 10-year-old daughter, Hannah.
“I was so depressed,” he said, “I just wanted to sink into the ground,” which is exactly where he ended up.
Mauger lay in a sleeping bag under a bush for one week, preparing to simply fade away, he said. “When you’re too depressed to even move, it’s like you’re dead already … you just exist.”
Then a friend slipped Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” into Mauger’s bag.
“Thoreau saved my life,” said Mauger, who recently got a job making pizzas at a Round Table Pizza in Hillsboro and said he’s been clean for the past two weeks.
His next objective is to get back into the world and return to his role as a father, Mauger said.
Sitting on the cold sidewalk in front of Sonrise Church in Forest Grove, Randy Nelson plays his guitar for the folks who’ve lined up, waiting for the church’s homeless shelter to open.
“I’ve never been homeless in my entire life,” Nelson said.
Born and raised in Forest Grove, he had lived with his wife in an apartment for the past three years.
After her death, he went to Idaho, where he was cited for driving while intoxicated. Complications from that ticket landed him in jail for nine months. When he got out in September, his Forest Grove apartment was occupied by someone else and all his belongings were gone. He’s been homeless ever since.
LISETTE and ELIJAH
While Lisette Acosta speaks with other guests at the Sonrise shelter, her 11-year-old son Elijah plays on her cell phone.
The pair lives in Lisette’s car when they’re not able to get into a shelter, but Lisette’s fear of the state taking her son prevents her from sharing more details. “If he sleeps in my car, I run the risk of losing him,” Lisette said.
The car isn’t running right now because it needs a timing belt replaced.
Lisette and Elijah have been on the street off and on for the past year, she said, after her husband, Elijah’s father, put a 30-day notice into the apartment they were sharing when the couple made the decision to divorce.
During the day, Elijah attends school in Hillsboro while Lisette meets with social workers.
She’s currently on the Washington County Community Action housing wait list and hopes to get into a home within the next three weeks. Recently, a state worker suggested she put her son into foster care but Lisette doesn’t want them to be separated.
On Feb. 23, Eddie Groth slept at the Forest Grove United Church of Christ Homeless Shelter.
The next day he went into the hospital for pneuomia.
On March 2, Groth was released from the hospital and spent the night at the homeless shelter set up by Sonrise Church in Forest Grove.
“Some people do drugs to cope [with homelessness],” Groth said. “I pray.”
Now 59, Groth grew up in Hawai’i, majored in architecture in college and moved to Oregon in 1980, the day after Mount St. Helens erupted. The sky was still dark from ash.
He worked at a technology company and after 9-11, he used his 401k money to get a computer science degree.
In January 2015, Groth had two months worth of rent saved when his landlord informed him the cost of his two-bedroom, one-bath home would increase from $980 to $1,600 per month.
He was on the street by February.
“Your breath tastes of rain,” Groth said of being homeless. “You dream of being inside.”
From November through March, Groth spent three reliable days a week in Forest Grove’s shelters. But now the season has ended. And he’s run out of heart medication. “My thing is to just keep going,” he said.