With emergency warming shelters still not available in Salem, a local taxi company is trying to help by offering homeless people free seats in their cabs to thaw out.
Willamette Valley Yellow Cab usually offers free rides to local warming shelters when it's blistering cold outside.
But this year the family that owns Yellow Cab decided they had to do something more after the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency — the nonprofit in charge of the opening the shelters — decided it couldn’t yet open them despite below-freezing temperatures.
Critics say the nonprofit's policy of opening shelters when temperatures are forecasted to reach 27 degrees or below for three consecutive nights needs to change.
City leaders and agency officials are meeting Friday at Salem City Hall to discuss whether to raise the trigger to 30 or 32 degrees, along with whether city staff could help open and close the shelters and potentially work with volunteers.
Critics have been especially vocal on social media, where Erin Wakefield, daughter of cab company owner Al Wakefield, saw comments that spurred her to action.
"We just want to make sure people aren’t freezing out there," she said.
So Thursday morning, she went downtown near the Marion and Center street bridges and handed out flyers letting people know if they're getting too cold, they can call.
Yellow Cab's number is 503-362-2411.
Drivers can let homeless people stay in the cabs for 10 to 15 minutes. The company has a fleet of about 40 cars, with 10 to 15 on the road at a time, Wakefield said. Homeless people who call will have to wait like regular customers.
Wakefield was expecting drivers to be upset when she told them about the decision. But "all of them were really happy about it," she said. "That makes me feel good."
Even though Yellow Cab is volunteering the service, drivers are still getting paid.
The cab company is also seeking donations of warm blankets, sleeping bags, socks and hand-warmers that drivers can give to the homeless.
"We should all do our best to help people out," Wakefield said.
An estimated 1,879 people were homeless in Marion and Polk counties from October 2016-17, according to the community action agency.
Year-round homeless agencies, such as the Union Gospel Mission of Salem, continue to provide their usual overnight beds and services.
The community action agency has said opening shelters now under more lenient criteria may make it impossible to open shelters later when temperatures dip even lower, like 15 degrees, because of limited resources.
The agency has agreements with three local churches to act as warming shelters.
While the city doesn't operate the warming shelters, Mayor Chuck Bennett said he and City Manager Steve Powers will meet with Jon Reeves, executive director of the community action agency, on Friday to consider solutions.
"We've still got people sleeping on the street in the cold," Bennett said.
The mayor has said he wants to see how much it would cost the city to help expand the number of days warming shelters are open.
The city has shown it's willing the spend money on homeless outreach, already allocating $1.4 million to a homeless rental assistance program.
Reeves said he plans to discuss what the community's capacity is to do more and what resources haven't been tapped.
Reeves said his agency needs:
- A central location designated as the warming shelter year after year. Churches have done amazing work helping out, he said, but a central shelter would be best.
- New volunteers so that longtime volunteers don't burn out.
Residents interested in volunteering for warming shelter duty can call the agency at 503-585-6232.
In Eugene, warming shelters, administered by Egan Warming Center, open whenever temperatures are projected to drop below 30 degrees, even if it's just on one night.
The Lane County Human Services Commission gave $28,000 to Egan this year to help keep the shelters open, according the Egan's director.
The Salem warming shelters operate on a "shoe string" budget supported by donations, not city or county money, Reeves said.
"That's part of what we're hoping to address," he said.
Reach staff reporter Jonathan Bach by email at email@example.com or by phone at 503-399-6714. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMBach and Facebook at www.facebook.com/jonathanbachjournalist/.