Gimme Shelter: Eugene emergency warming center makes room for pets


If disaster strikes, you don’t leave a family member behind. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, countless pet guardians stayed put and faced the floods rather than abandon beloved beasts who weren’t allowed in the hurricane shelters.

The Willamette Valley doesn’t get many natural disasters, but sometimes winter nights can be harsh. While many are a little unprepared, those hit hardest are the homeless, who have nowhere to escape the cold. Their pets suffer with them.

During a freeze December 8, 2008, 60-year-old Major Thomas Egan, a homeless veteran, froze to death on the streets of Eugene. People were horrified this could happen here. Citizens, veterans, activists, faith groups, local governments and others came together to ensure it wouldn’t happen to another soul. The result was the Egan Warming Center, whose mission is simple: ensuring that homeless people in Lane County have indoor refuge when temperatures hit 28 degrees or below between November 15th and March 31st.


Joann Ernst, animal lover and a commissioner on the Eugene Water and Electric Board is a volunteer of the warming center, which operates shelters in churches, temples and other sites around town on the freezing nights. While many have been helped, Ernst says, “It was well known that people who had pets were staying out and not coming in to the centers.” 

There are over 2,500 homeless people, including children and families, living in Lane County. Many keep their pets through thick and thin. Ernst says on one cold night volunteers heard of at least 20 people who hadn’t sought shelter because they wouldn’t leave their pets behind. Those who did fretted, hoping the dogs and cats they left curled up in cars would be warm enough.

A plan needed to be formulated. Ernst, fellow volunteer Jackie Rice, the pastor from a church that hosted a warming center, and folks from the St. Vincent de Paul charity all figured out what to do.

Greenhill Humane Society donated kennels, and Rice and Ernst coordinated volunteers to staff the warming centers.

Ernst says the program has yet to have a dry run — there hasn’t been a freeze since the plan was conceived. But in the event one occurs all will be ready for homeless people and their pets at First Christian Church in Eugene.

Ernst says everyone who comes in with a pet “will be given a bracelet with a number on it” corresponding to the kennel that dog, cat or other pet will stay in that night. Owners will be asked to sign a release form in case something happens, or the pet isn’t claimed and needs to be re-homed.

Volunteering at the Egan Warming Center “has just been wonderful,” says Ernst. “It definitely gives a sense of community.”

Once Rice and Ernst put out the word about providing shelter for the homeless and their pets, Ernst says, “tons of volunteers came forward.”

Spot readers who want to help the effort can email Ernst at Items always needed include kennels, blankets and pet food — the latter packaged in small bags people take when they leave in the morning.


Camilla Mortensen is a journalist, folklorist and freelance writer with a Ph.D. in literature. She lives in a 1975 Airstream trailer in Pleasant Hill, Oregon with her three dogs - Zella a Rhodesian Ridgeback born without a ridge; Smudge, a blind doxie mix and Rhoda a pit mix - and a cat, Clelia. Her two horses Baby Huey and Flashtastic live close by.


on 2010-03-15 14:22 by Spot Magazine

Corrections to this article have been made to improve accuracy and clarity.