Coming in from the cold in Washougal

Severe weather shelter provides a place to rest

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Brandon Merritt, 28, communicates with a friend via Facebook Messenger, while relaxing in a severe weather shelter Thursday, Feb. 22, at St. Matthew Lutheran Church, in Washougal. The site, at 716 Washougal River Road, will be open from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m., when the forecast is 30 degrees or lower, or if ice or snow are expected, and there are enough volunteers to be there, particularly from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.

The temporary severe weather shelter, which opened several nights last week at the Washougal-based St. Matthew Lutheran Church, after the outside temperatures dropped below 30 degrees, has attracted a small group of men who needed to come in from the cold.

There were three male guests at the shelter on Thursday, Feb. 22, two men on Monday, Feb. 19, and three men on Sunday, Feb. 18.

Brandon Merritt, a 28-year-old man who has been sleeping in his 1993 Subaru Impreza for several weeks, rested on an air mattress in the fellowship hall at St. Matthew last Thursday night.

“I can actually stretch out,” he said, adding that he is thankful to have his car, which needs a new fuel pump to be operable.

“Otherwise, I’d be sleeping outside,” Merritt said.

St. Matthew Lead Pastor Bob Barber saw Merritt earlier that day at the Washougal Community Library, and told him about the shelter.

Merritt keeps seven blankets in his car, but said the recent winter weather was too much.

“It was freezing last night,” Merritt said, referring to Wednesday, Feb. 21, when temperatures dipped to 29 degrees and snow blanketed the area. “Getting comfortable (in the car) was a nightmare.”

After eating two sloppy joes, Merritt opened up and shared details of his current situation.

“My life is not really that great right now,” Merritt said.

He is separated from his wife, who lives with the couple’s 1-month-old daughter in a trailer.

Merritt has scoliosis and muscle degeneration in both knees which has made finding work difficult, said Merritt, who has previously worked in a slaughterhouse, as a caregiver for a man with epilepsy and as a fiberglass-insulation installer.

Merritt has lived in Vancouver most of his life and has close ties with the Camas-Washougal area — in fact, his longtime best friend currently lives “in a tiny apartment” in Washougal. Merritt plans to apply for Social Security’s Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which provides cash assistance and health care coverage for people who are either 65 or older, blind or disabled. If he qualifies, Merritt said he would use the SSI money to help him pay for housing.

Volunteers provide warmth

Deborah Breitenbauch, of Washougal, volunteered twice at the temporary severe weather shelter.

“I drive around, and I see people out on the streets carrying stuff on their backs,” she said. “It’s cold. They deserve to be warm. It’s good to help people out when you can.”

Vickie Cable and Susi Lantz, both of Washougal, welcomed guests to the shelter on Feb. 22. Cable and her husband, Ken, and Lantz and her husband, Jeff, had also volunteered earlier in the week.

As Winter Hospitality Overflow volunteers at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Vancouver, the Cables — both retired — saw more than 50 men, women and children in the church’s gymnasium on two different mornings in December of 2017.

Lantz said volunteering provides the chance to do something good.

“People are in desperate situations,” she said. “Things happen. Nobody should have to live on the street.”

“We have to care about each other,” Lantz added. “Otherwise, the sense of humanity is lost.”

When there are enough volunteers to staff the site overnight, the severe weather shelter at St. Matthew is open to men, women and families when the forecast calls for snow, ice or temperatures of 30 degrees or lower.

When people arrive at the shelter, volunteers encourage them to pick up socks, scarves, thermal wear and travel size toiletries that have been donated by a local Girl Scout troop and other community members.

Guests can temporarily store their possessions in donated plastic bins.

Winter is not over yet — and the shelter still has a few needs.

“We can always use twin size blankets and fitted sheets,” Barber said. “We could also use a couple more twin-size air mattresses.”

Volunteers go through training and background checks before helping at the shelter. For more information about volunteer opportunities, contact Barber at 360-835-5533 or