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Community forum

About 200 people attended Monday night’s community forum on a controversial proposed severe weather shelter at First Christian Church on Kessler Boulevard in Longview.

Forum organizers from the Kelso-Longview Ministerial Association were largely successful in keeping the focus on specific questions about logistics and procedures at the proposed shelter, but there were a few tense moments with outbursts from frustrated neighbors.

“I’m very respectful and I’m a Christian. It doesn’t mean I have to take all these homeless people,” one woman called from the audience.

Others said they were concerned about the shelter’s impact on a nearby private school and the possibility of sex offenders slipping through the security measures.

The audience seemed split in its view on the shelter, applauding both pointed questions from attendees and detailed answers from organizers.

“We’re discussing what really is an emotional topic. There are emotions like anger, or concern, anxiety, fear, hurt. There’s also emotions of hope,” St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church Pastor Nic Mather said at the start of the meeting. “It’s important that all of us are aware that these emotions are here in this room — they’re here within each and every one of us. Let’s make sure we are self-aware of that as we converse with each other.”

The temporary shelter only would be allowed to operate when the city declares a severe weather emergency with temperatures higher than 100 degrees or lower than 32 degrees.

About 25 to 30 churches are active in the association, all of which support the shelter efforts, according to the group. And about 70 volunteers from the churches and other local nonprofits have already pledged to help run the shelter.

Much of the concern Monday night seemed to stem from the shelter’s proximity to a preschool, Kessler Elementary School and residential areas.

In response, ministerial association members said they have a number of safety and security measures planned.

First Christian Church plans to install new outdoor lighting, door alarms, six to eight security cameras and temporary fencing on the Kessler Boulevard side of the building, said the church’s board moderator Jamie Craig. The church is located at 2000 East Kessler Blvd.

The shelter would have only one entrance and exit on the Kessler side of the building, away from the schools. Volunteers would arrive at 6 p.m. to interact with people as they start to gather before the doors open at 7 p.m.

A minimum of two paid professionals from Love Overwhelming and three trained volunteers would be onsite. They would screen for registered sex offenders, weapons, alcohol, drugs and drug paraphernalia, LO Executive Director Chuck Hendrickson said. Volunteers would apply and go through a national background check.

The ministerial association also is considering a contract with Columbia Security, forum organizers said.

“Most of our churches, even this meeting tonight, is more low-barrier than the shelter we’re proposing,” said Renewal City Church Pastor James Dieter. “People don’t get to just walk off the street because the door is open.”

While at the shelter, clients would be offered resources-related substance abuse treatment and case management.

Shelter clients would wake up at 5:30 a.m., have breakfast and leave by 7 a.m., said Dieter, who is treasurer of the ministerial association. Volunteers then would conduct “sweeps” of the surrounding blocks for litter and to help protect students as they walk to school.

The group is also working on establishing a daytime warming place for guests to go to in the morning.

Hendrickson said the group recently was awarded a $1,000 grant from United Way for the shelter. Love in the Name of Christ (Love INC) is managing all funds to run the shelter and will reimburse for operations.

Love Overwhelming has operated a severe weather shelter for the last couple years at its building at 618 14th Ave. Last winter, it closed abruptly in early March after the city denied its request for funding budgeted for cold weather shelters and because of complaints from neighbors.

Hendrickson said the shelter averaged 64 people last year with a maximum of 108 one night.

After criticism of LO’s previous controversial low-barrier in Kelso, Longview Presbyterian Church Pastor Liz Kearny said she takes responsibility as a community member for the shelter’s “perceived failure.”

“I was in conversation with folks at the shelter but I never actually came to volunteer at the shelter last year. There’s a whole set of community members who were not a part of this conversation and Love Overwhelming stood in that gap for us,” she said, to loud applause.

The forum unraveled a little later after Kearny said often there are schools inside or near churches, so “it doesn’t really matter” which church they choose because they would have the same conversation about how to protect children.

“It matters to us,” one woman called from the audience. “We live in the neighborhood and it matters to us.”

“Have them sign an agreement and go to your house,” a man shouted. “Take your front door off.”

In response to a question about whether the neighboring private preschool, Kid’s World Learning Center, would be reimbursed for lost business, organizers said they are open to that conversation.

Kearny said the business could bring receipts to the ministerial association for any security upgrades they purchase because she considers those “shelter costs.”

At the start of the meeting, three former homeless Longview residents shared their stories of struggles with substance abuse and how the emergency shelter helped them. All three are now clean, they said.

Deborah Idlett, who was born and raised in Longview, said she lost her children due to addiction. It dropped to 19 degrees the New Year’s Eve night that she spent at LO’s Kelso shelter, she said.

“I was 119 pounds. … I could very easily have frozen to death,” she said. “The night before, I had broken into a house with my then-boyfriend and we had started a fire in a house that was for sale in the bathtub so we could contain the fire and stay warm.”

Staying in the shelter didn’t “miraculously” turn her life around, she said.

“But what it did for me is give me the opportunity to stay alive long enough so that I could make those decisions,” she said. “The last thing I wanted to do was intimidate or scare anyone. I just didn’t want to freeze.”

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