Church floats opening shelter in Camas

Some neighbors oppose idea, say it would ‘draw homeless to area’

St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church leaders are exploring the possibility of opening their Camas parish hall as an emergency severe-weather shelter this winter.

Fr. Gary Lazzeroni, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas, spoke to more than 70 people who attended a meeting on the shelter topic in the church’s parish hall Sunday afternoon.

“There are those who are living on the margins,” he said. “There are neighbors in need.”

Charlene Welch, Development and Community Relations Manager with the Council for the Homeless, talked about a severe weather shelter that was set up in December 2017, at Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church, in Vancouver.

David Lester, pastoral assistant for social concerns for more than a year at St. Thomas Aquinas, talked about providing “a circle of compassion” and said there could be room for a maximum of 20 people to stay in the parish hall if it were used as a severe weather shelter.

He said the church’s leadership team will meet and talk about whether to pursue the idea of a severe weather shelter.

“This is the beginning stages of discussion,” Lester said.

He said the leadership team will communicate with the Council for the Homeless and determine whether to host a severe weather shelter at St. Thomas Aquinas or another location in East Clark County.

“We would support with volunteers, so that people don’t die in the streets,” Lester said, adding that there would be another meeting before the church takes additional steps in the pursuit of the severe weather shelter idea.

Al Balsiger, a member of the St. Thomas Aquinas parish who has lived in the neighborhood near the church for 19 years, opposes having a severe weather shelter there.

He has concerns it would draw the homeless population to the area.

“Maybe this is not the right location,” Balsiger said, after the meeting, adding that he would want to help where the need can best be served.

He referred to the severe weather shelter at Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church, in east Vancouver, and he said Washougal is further along in the process of opening a severe weather shelter in the Washougal Community Center.

“If there is a need here, I’m all in,” Balsiger said. “I will remain open minded. I do have a concern (a severe weather shelter) will be a magnet for a problem that may not currently exist.”

Rocky Fresh, who lives near St. Thomas Aquinas Church, said it would be a cold weather shelter, not a homeless shelter.

“People would come here, sleep and then get out,” he said. “As defined, it would not be a magnet.”

Kristin Yoshimura, pastoral assistant for liturgy and music at St. Thomas Aquinas, said there are already some people sleeping in their vehicles overnight in the church’s parking lot.

“I would like to see softer hearts,” she said after the meeting.

It just takes one catastrophic event — such as an accident or major illness — for people to end up in those kinds of situations, Yoshimura added.

“We are not inviting a troop of anarchists,” she said. “These are people with stories and souls. How would you like to be treated?”

For more information about the potential shelter efforts and volunteer opportunities, email Lester at david@stthomascamas.org.

Meanwhile, the Council for the Homeless will provide training for people interested in volunteering at a severe weather shelter from 6 to 7:30 p.m., Monday, Jan. 15, at Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church, 12513 S.E. Mill Plain Blvd., Vancouver.