SHEM seeks volunteers to help with homeless

Scott Swanson

Sweet Home Emergency Ministries is busier than ever, but SHEM is lacking volunteers, leaders of the organization said last week in a presentation to the Sweet Home Rotary Club.

Cindy Rice, who manages SHEM’s food pantry but has long served as the organization’s de facto leader and spokesperson, said the number of homeless clients has surged and the “client volume is increasing” all around.

“It’s just incredibly hard for me to see,” she said of the growing number of homeless in Sweet Home, who extend well beyond individuals visible on the streets.

Last year, Rice reported, SHEM served a total of about 500 homeless clients.

“This year, just to the end of November, we have seen 1,234,” she said. “That’s just a huge, huge jump.”

Between Manna Meals, the dinners served three days a week at the United Methodist Church and food boxes distributed at SHEM’s 1115 Long St. headquarters next to the fire station, it has served more than 13,972 people through the end of November, she said.

Board Chair Julie Dedman, who handles the finances, reported that through November, SHEM had helped 157 families with the rent, utilities, emergency motel nights, etc., totaling 380 people – 269 adults and 111 children.

She said that SHEM also provides propane vouchers, which will fill propane tanks 1½ times, which clients can get every three months.

“Propane enables the client to be able to keep their place of living warm and maybe cooked food also. And that’s a pretty reasonable amount of money,” she said.

Another outreach, Dedman added, was the Back to School Bash in September, which provides Sweet Home School District students with approximately 500 backpacks filled with supplies.

Currently, SHEM is putting together Christmas food baskets, for which applications are still being accepted from needy families.

Increasingly, partly due to the homeless encampment in the old City Hall parking lot behind SHEM, the organization has responded to an influx of “clients that can’t store or cook things properly” by making special “day packs” with read-to-eat food, Rice said.

She noted that she and Dedman were a little “tardy” to the Rotary meeting because some needy individuals showed up unexpectedly, right at the last minute.

“What do you do when people show up and say, ‘I’ve got kids to feed at home?'” she said.

Rice said the concentration of homeless individuals in the parking lot has resulted in increased security concerns, noting that she has personally had to take her car to Les Schwab “five times with nails and screws in my tires,” and other SHEM volunteers have had similar experiences.

Rice, who can often be seen walking her dog in the area, said she was “personally pinned up against a fence with my dog” by a loose canine in the area.

“The public urination and defecation is just out in the open. So I’m really hopeful that things move forward,” she said. A new location, at the north end of 24th Avenue, is scheduled to open this week for the homeless encampment.

Rice noted that most of the volunteers now park across Long Street rather than behind the SHEM building.

“Never in my life, in the last 35, 36, 37 years I’ve been a volunteer, have I ever felt like ‘I don’t want to volunteer,'” she added. “It is scary out there.”

Rice said another challenge was aging volunteers.

She lauded the efforts of Board Member Rebecca Wolthuis, who has taken on the challenge of ordering food supplies and is working to help the organization become more efficient.

“We need the next generation to rise up and help us move forward with technology,” Rice said, adding that “Rebecca is trying to take us into the next millennium. I’m sure she’s finding it very difficult.”

SHEM volunteers, she noted, have practical experience that needs to be passed on before it is lost. “We are at risk of losing that knowledge base,” she said.

Currently, Rice said, SHEM needs people who have “building skills.”

“We need somebody to climb that 12-, 14-foot ladder like I did when it was really, really raining, and clean up the gutter,” she said, adding that the organization needs painting and structural building repairs.