By JASON COX
Of the Keizertimes

Record numbers are seeking shelter at Simonka Place, a local ministry catering to women and children with nowhere else to go.

Its leaders have some guesses as to why: Winter always makes sleeping outdoors less comfortable. Nationally, women and children are becoming homeless at a faster rate than men. The recent flooding wiped out homeless camps at Wallace Marine Park and Cascades Gateway City Park.  One woman had been living at the shelter and got a basement apartment, only to have to come back to Simonka Place when the floodwaters invaded her new home.

Meanwhile, UGM reports donations are down more than usual for this time of year. Offices, hallways and the dayroom are now sleeping quarters as the shelter, run by Union Gospel Mission, had 67 people there sleeping Friday, Jan. 27. It’s the highest number ever, but an administrator said the residents are mostly handling the influx with good cheer.

Over the weekend numbers tapered down slightly, and were at 55 by Tuesday, Jan. 31.

This is in a facility that rarely sees more than 50 people on a given night. September and October saw averages of 40 and 45, falling down to 37 in November and 35 in December. In January, that number jumped to 53.

The spike started just after Christmas, said Jeanine Knight, women’s director for Union Gospel Mission.

“A lot of people are surprised,” Knight said. “Some people have been here before, and staff are having to do things we haven’t considered before.”

The rolling average of people at the shelter has risen in recent years, Knight said, because staff have stopped turning people in need away when it has reached normal capacity, and under some circumstances are allowing residents to stay longer than the previously-enforced 30 days.

“If people are doing what we ask them to do and following house rules, then we’re not just going to tell them to leave if they have no place to go,” Knight said. “I’m leaning to believe if you have them leave, they’re starting over again, losing their address where people can connect with them, losing phone contact.”

To stay within the shelter’s good graces, residents have to be taking steps to move their lives forward, including seeking employment and housing – “otherwise we would fill up,” Knight said.

She said there’s always going to be plenty of laughter at Simonka Place, but acknowledged the extra tension that crowding puts on residents who are already experiencing extraordinary levels of stress.

Mats are on the dayroom floor, meaning the women who use it as a refuge from insomnia don’t have anywhere to go read or otherwise relax. Children who need space to run and play simply don’t have it.

They’re doing more with less support from the community than is common this time of year, said Cheryl Dixon, community relations manager for UGM. She fears the local economy may be lagging behind national indicators that show slow, steady improvement.

Needs include cash, diapers, towels and flip-flops.