On a freezing night last December, the life of a homeless man was saved at Lane Community College. He was one of 16 people sheltering in the college’s warming center on main campus in Eugene, Oregon.
It was the fifth night in a 10-day stretch of record-breaking freezing temperatures. During that time, Lane served 200 guests, as they are called, and logged 600 volunteer hours.
Grady O’Connor, a health and physical education instructor at Lane, was one of the volunteers that night. When a guest began choking on a sandwich, O’Connor went into action and performed the Heimlich maneuver. He had taught the technique in class earlier that same day. The action dislodged a morsel of food from the choking man’s throat. EMTs were called in, just in case. They pronounced the man sound. He finished his meal and tucked in for the night.
Lane is part of the Egan Warming Center, a coalition of organizations dedicated “to ensure that homeless people in Lane County have a place to sleep indoors when temperatures drop to 30 degrees or below between November 15th and March 31st.” The coalition was named in honor of Major Thomas Egan, a homeless veteran who froze to death on a Eugene street in 2008.
Lane’s center is popular. Volunteers serve hot meals prepared by the college’s renowned culinary program and food services department. Guests have access to hot showers in the gym. There’s a movie shown every night using the equipment in the classroom that serves as the shelter. The local food bank contributes sandwiches and snacks. Individuals donate clothing, toiletries, and sleeping bags. When the center is full, overflow guests are fed while they wait for a shuttle to another Egan site. On average, Lane serves 20 guests a night including up to five students.
Few community colleges provide shelters but there was plenty of evidence that Lane needed one. In 2014, LCC Public Safety Chief Jace Smith, Vice President Brian Kelly, and student body president Michael Weed began advocating for a shelter, noting that homelessness was a major impediment to student success. Smith’s officers often encountered students sleeping in cars, buildings, the baseball dugout, or in the woods around campus. Weed had been homeless himself and knew the situation first hand.
Board members were shocked to learn that Lane had homeless students but it’s a national issue. A study by Wisconsin HOPE Lab founder Sara Goldrick-Rab reported that “thousands of community college students nationwide are homeless or on the verge of homelessness.” The study surveyed more than 30,000 students at 70 community colleges in 24 states and found that “13-14 percent of students were homeless and about half were housing insecure.” Lane’s board unanimously approved the main campus shelter.
It’s hard to say just how many lives have been saved by a safe, warm place to sleep and something to eat. Last season, the Egan centers activated 25 times, serving 1,677 unique guests—including 359 at Lane.
Lane’s volunteers are passionate. They can tell you that a warming shelter on campus gives disadvantaged students critical support to help them transform their lives. And sometimes, it even saves a life.
Published by Lane Community College Public Affairs, March 2018.