November 22 - Just before dawn last Saturday, the overnight low was a bitter 17 degrees. For the first 30 residents of the City of Cottage Grove’s overflow tent site on 12th Street, their thin nylon tent pitched inside a fenced gravel lot offered little protection from the cold.
Karen Munsell is a community volunteer who is passionate about helping others. She was one of a small group of community volunteers who showed up at the site last Friday afternoon to respond to a Facebook post from one of the campers asking for kitchen donations.
“The site was pretty bare bones when it opened earlier this month,” Munsell said. “It started filling up after the Trailhead Park campers relocated there. The city provides portable bathrooms, a hand-washing station and electricity. I loved working with my friends and neighbors, Duane Taddei, Patrick Cartwright, Kenneth Roberts, Dylan Mann and Shiloh Glaspell, to respond quickly to the cold-weather emergency these campers faced.”
City staff chalked out 32 spaces large enough to fit two tents, one for sleeping and one for storage. Campers can park their vehicles outside the fence with a city parking permit.
The overflow site is self-managed by the campers. Mariah Gaut and Amy Bird currently serve as the unofficial camp hosts.
Bird describes herself as a “Jane of All Trades.” She moved to Cottage Grove in 2021 after she lost a baby and her marriage didn’t survive. Her lease ended in July and she had to put her three children (ages 4, 8 and 10) into foster care while she desperately tried to find a new place to live. She said she is excited because she is signing an apartment lease on Monday and her family is currently in the foster care reunification process.
“It’s amazing the city has allowed people to put their tents in this overflow site,” Gaut said. “It makes a way for people with mental health and other issues to have a safe place to go because many can’t make it out to the Highway 99 site.”
Gaut came to the camp from Eugene. After her motorhome was towed, she was advised to go to other communities for resources. Her husband, Julian Palad, works at Subway. She said the site is quickly evolving into a community where campers buy food with food stamps and donate it for community meals. She said most feel safe enough to sleep knowing they can wake up in the morning and none of their stuff was stolen.
“I want to demonstrate to the people here what they can do for themselves when they don’t have to hide or constantly be on the move,” Gaut said. “We want to use our own resources to support each other here and not totally rely on the community for help.”
Duane Taddei is a well-known community activist. He has volunteered in the past when Beds for Freezing Nights activated its warming center. That experience showed him what homeless people need and the suffering they endure on freezing nights.
With freezing nights in the forecast for last week, he said he began collecting extension cords for the campers to tap into the electricity provided to them by Cottage Grove taxpayers. He also purchased food to make 36 burritos and served them with hot chocolate out of the back of his vehicle on Friday night near the front gate. He came back on Saturday night and served another hot meal with food donated by a co-worker’s family after a Celebration of Life reception.
“This was a temporary mission for me to help these people survive multiple freezing nights,” Taddei said. “I saw a need. I had the time, the resources, and a following on social media that I knew I could count on and they really came through for the homeless in the overflow site. Most of the current campers now have pallets under their tents and heaters.”
Patrick Cartwright owns Northwest Customs that customizes and restores classic vehicles. With the help of his wife, employees, kids and friends, they have been feeding the homeless in the parks for months. On Saturday morning, in 20-degree weather, he served campers a hot breakfast of biscuits and gravy with orange juice.
“This homeless crisis is nationwide and it’s only going to get worse because of the housing shortage,” Cartwright said. “My family and my business are doing everything we can and it’s been great to see how the community came together to prevent anyone from dying in bitterly cold weather. Watching what happened in the last 144 hours has been incredible!”
On Friday night, City Councilor Kenneth Michael Roberts joined the efforts to quickly winterize the camp and offer words of encouragement to the campers and volunteers.
He said, “After the council’s town hall meeting to address the growing homeless problem, I’m astonished and happy with how the community used Facebook to help support the campers the last weekend. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to continue working on this issue to find long-term solutions to homeless crisis we face.”
Munsell believes the campers are trying hard to make the best of a bad situation. “I’m so proud of how the community provided many creature comforts to help the campers survive those freezing nights.”
In an effort to create greater efficiency in identifying and providing for the emerging needs of un-housed individuals and families, Community Coordinator Teresa Cowan and her assistant, Jessica Klarr, serve as a both a clearinghouse of information and de-facto case managers for those needing assistance.
As the City of Cottage Grove’s Community Coordinator for 17-years, Cowan says desperate people in crisis are calling and walking into the office every day. Many of them are local people who have fallen on hard times. She said when housing becomes available, the move-in fees are a huge barrier for most of them.
“We are serving working people who have jobs and have lost their housing and their incomes don’t qualify for low-income services,” Klarr said. “We desperately need churches and other organizations to adopt a family or individual and help them find a place to live. We badly need volunteers for Beds for Freezing Nights and to support the Rapid Area Network (RAN) meet immediate needs.”
Earlier this year, Cottage Grove City Council used donations from individuals and organizations to create a discretionary account in the City’s Trust Fund to purchase things needed by the un-housed population. The fund purchased mobile shower supplies, provided a washer and dryer for the Highway 99 site, and paid for a young family with three kids to stay in a motel for three freezing nights.
To make a tax-deductible cash donation or provide needed items such as hand warmers, tent heaters, warm coats and boots, hats, gloves and tent heaters, call 541-942-1185 or drop it off on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. If they are out of the office, donations can be left at the library.
With this story, Community Reporter Cindy Weeldreyer begins a weekly series focused on how Cottage Grove is addressing a growing homeless population. To contact her, call 541-915-0113 or send an email to [email protected]