- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 18, 2017

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - Snow and ice that closed Portland-area schools for days and kept workers home created an inconvenience for some but pushed others closer to the brink of financial disaster.

“There are families out there who are living on the edge,” said Judy Alley, executive director of East Portland’s SnowCap, the region’s largest food pantry.

Four highly publicized weather-related deaths in recent weeks prompted concern from public officials, social service agencies and the general public.

But beyond the tragic deaths are thousands of working Oregonians and senior citizens who face a chain reaction that arrived in tandem with the winter weather.

When Portland Public and other districts close, food pantries like SnowCap do, too. When roads are unsafe, public transportation is delayed. When TriMet is slower than normal, employees miss shifts, employers cut hours, and some families are left wondering how they’re going to pay the bills next month.

Who were the homeless people who died this winter, and could there be more?

When demonstrators confronted new Mayor Ted Wheeler in front of Portland City Hall about the unprecedented four exposure deaths, he acknowledged that more people might die this winter.

For Alley, who has led Snowcap since 1991, the chain reaction could push some families over the edge.

She can’t recall a time during her tenure when she was forced to close the pantry, which serves as a lifeline for 8,000 to 10,000 people a month, so many times in the same school year.

“If they didn’t have money for anything extra this month, and then their heat bill goes up, that’s going to put them behind next month,” she said.

“It’s just a snowballing thing.”

For some, it’s a life-and-death situation. “These times put vulnerable people at extreme risks,” said Jeff Cogen, executive director of the nonprofit social service organization Impact NW. The agency helps 36,000 people per year and the calls from families who need help with their rent or utility bills have been surging, he said.

The confluence of weather and school-closures come at a difficult time. Nonprofits depend on generosity during the holiday season.

A decline in giving usually follows the holiday bump. “We’re going to be struggling to catch up,” Cogen predicted.

Brian Ferschweiler, executive director of Portland’s branch of St. Vincent De Paul, said his small staff of three is maxed out. They have only many volunteers, and they have to turn away people after they hit the magic number of 20 or 25 walk-in clients.

The agency gave out $1.4 million in rent and utility assistance in 2015 in its five-county metro area, and need is not declining. The agency, one of the few that helps with rent and utilities, has people calling in for hours.

“We’ve had people on hold for four hours,” Ferschweiler said. “I know that sounds horrible.”

Next month, Ferschweiler predicted, will be worse, because that’s when people will see rising heating costs hit their mailbox.

Food pantries and other social service agencies rely heavily on senior citizen volunteers to keep the operations running, and when they can’t show up it’s difficult for everyone.

Lynn Hager doesn’t know how her family is going to pay the bills this month, and that’s an uncertain position to be in.

The 35-year-old student at Portland State depends on her fiance, Aaron Newman, to provide for the family. They can make the rent on their Southwest Portland apartment, but finances are tight now, and the weather is to blame.

But Newman, a landscaper, hasn’t worked several days this month due to the weather. When the storm hit last Wednesday, he was still at work. The rest of the week, he lost half his wages, she said.

Newman typically brings home $2,500 a month, Hager said, and losing half that doesn’t make paying the rent any easier. “There’s no cushion there,” she said. The family may apply for emergency grants to cover the cost.

Wilder, the couple’s 4-year-old son, goes to day care at Portland State, but Hager wasn’t able to get to school last Friday when PSU decided to open after closing on Wednesday and Thursday.

School closures have a hidden cost beyond students losing instructional time.

In Northeast Portland, Jenny Stine has been out of work for much of the past month because of Portland Public Schools’ closures. The 41-year-old works part time as a lunch lady and educational assistant at Jason Lee Elementary, where her son is a third-grader. She also works for after-school programs.

All told, she’s worked only five days this pay period (a sixth day was a paid holiday). Her husband, Joe Wright, works full time as a food pantry coordinator for the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, but Jenny’s wages help pay for utility bills and other daily needs.

But she’ll be fine. She wishes she could do more to help the students who depend on free breakfast and lunch at the elementary school.

When asked what those students’ parents were doing during the recent snow storms, Stine said: “Probably praying. They’re waiting for school to come back.”

Even the Oregon Food Bank, the nonprofit juggernaut, was briefly at the mercy of the elements.

The Northeast Portland warehouse closed for two days in the past month, more than officials could recall during the past few years combined. They canceled volunteer shifts out of concern over road conditions. Food stayed put in the warehouse.

Trucks were still able to deliver food to the Northeast Portland’s 94,000-square-foot warehouse despite the snow storm. But no one was able to come pick up the food to get to hungry families.

The warehouse, which typically holds 4 million pounds of food, was bursting at the seams by Monday.

“One of our concerns is the fact that kids aren’t getting the meals at school,” said Myrna Jensen, the agency’s spokeswoman.

On Monday, food bank chief executive Susannah Morgan stepped into her 8,500-square-foot freezer and let out of long “hoo” of amazement.

The sky-high racks of food were so full containers were spread out across the floor. That’s unusual, she said.

Around the corner, an army of more than 100 volunteers furiously worked to pack up potatoes, rice and other food for delivery. Boston’s “More than a Feeling” blared over the speakers as volunteers scurried around the warehouse.

Morgan said the food bank will distribute all of the food within the next few days.

“It’s not feeding anyone if it’s in my warehouse,” she said, walking through the facility.

The weather will eventually relent, and Judy Alley will reopen the 12,000-square-foot facility she and her staff use as home base to donate to thousands of east Multnomah County families each month.

She relies on a group of roughly 1,000 volunteers to help out the eight staffers who run the area’s largest food pantry.

That volunteer base averages 75 years old, she said. “I’m not going to encourage them to come out in the ice and snow,” she said.

The pantries always need more volunteers.

The persistent frigid weather forced several pantries and their volunteers to stay shuttered Tuesday because many shelters base their schedules on whether schools are open. More than 10 facilities called by The Oregonian/OregonLive remained closed.

That included the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon’s emergency food pantry.

Travis Niemann, who runs the emergency center that is one of the few open on weekends, said he’s already felt the support from Portlanders eager to help.

The pantry sits in the basement of a church in the Cully neighborhood and was socked in for days due to the snow.

Last Saturday, Niemann sent an email to the neighborhood association pleading for help.

When he showed up at the church, a group of about a dozen volunteers was already there, including a 10-year-old kid. People brought shovels and worked for two hours to clear sidewalks and pathways to the basement.

The stocked the room with supplies, and helped served 42 families that day.

That moment said it all.

“People want to help and they don’t necessarily know how,” he said.

___

Information from: The Oregonian/OregonLive, https://www.oregonlive.com


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