Oregon program collects warm clothes for homeless

COOS BAY — In the rain and cold, a group of homeless men gathered around a pickup, eagerly choosing winter coats.

They smiled and joked, picking out garments. One particularly large man, though, couldn't find a coat that fit.

When it became clear the man was about to walk away empty-handed, a volunteer took off his own coat and draped it around the man's shoulders. "It was the only one that would fit him," Joshua Woods said. As Woods stood in the rain wearing a white T-shirt, another volunteer handed him a coat from the donated pile.

Project Hope — a new volunteer organization started by the same group that runs Paranormal Science Investigators of Oregon — collects coats, blankets, sleeping bags and anything else that will keep a person warm. The group takes the items directly to homeless people.

"We go out and look where we've seen people before," said Donna Stewart, the founder of Project Hope.

The volunteers have gone out almost nightly for a little more than a month. They look under bridges, at shelters and in the parking lots of Walmart and The Mill Casino-Hotel. Many homeless people don't know where to go for supplies, Stewart explained.

On a cold and wet night last week, many homeless people had retreated into the woods to hunker down, volunteer Laura Schier guessed. "When the weather is bad, they try to get bedded down before dark," Schier said.

Schier understands, because she once was homeless in Northern California, she said. "There were times when I had a sleeping bag under the trees in the woods, and I was happy about it," Schier said. "There are people who don't even have that."

Until two weeks ago, that description fit Danalee Dufresne. He was sleeping under the McCullough Bridge with only his jacket and two towels, he said.

"I used one towel to lay over the jacket and one towel to lay on," he said.

Dufresne met the Project Hope volunteers at the South Coast Gospel Mission, where he has been staying lately. He watched a group of men sorting through a pile of coats but said he didn't need one. Better to leave them for the people who did, he said.

He recently needed new shoes. The ones he had were too small and cut off circulation to his feet. When you spend all day walking, that can be dangerous, he said.

"Most of the help you get is from other homeless," Dufresne said. "That is how I have shoes now." Dufresne pointed to his new hiking boots. "Someone gave me shoes when they saw I wasn't wearing ones that fit."

Groups that deliver needed supplies really help, he said.

"Something as silly as gloves," said Philip Melson, who is staying at The Mission. "It sounds silly, but it means a lot. It is winter now."

Schier said most homeless people she encounters are good about only taking what they need.

In the Walmart parking lot, Woods met a young man with sturdy boots, a tattered coat and a lumpy backpack.

"The gentleman said he didn't need a blanket, but he needed a tarp or a tent," Woods said. Without pausing, Woods walked inside Walmart to buy the man a tarp.

"If we have money, and we don't have what they need, we'll try to buy it for them," Schier explained. "I wish we could do more."

Many of the dozen or so Project Hope volunteers have been giving supplies to the homeless on their own for years. Kira Henderson carries water and canned goods with her to hand out. She remembers a time when she, her mother and her older sister lived in their van.

"People don't realize it is just the little things that really help," Henderson said.

The impetus for Project Hope's formation came when Neighbors in Need began discussions about building a warming center, Stewart said. The group hopes its work will demonstrate the need for a warming center in the community.

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