When no bed is available, blankets are a lifeline for Portland’s homeless

Stewart, from the Connect program, gathers up blankets for guests.

Stewart, from the Connect program, gathers up the best throw blankets they can find for guests.

It’s evening and shelters are at capacity. It’s raining, it’s cold and it’s time to seek out a place to sleep. Where do you go if you have nowhere to go? How do you stay warm? Will you find somewhere safe and comfortable to sleep?

For anyone dealing with the troubling reality of life on the streets, these are all very real questions that men and women experiencing homelessness have to think about daily. They are also questions that can often be answered with the power of one thing: a blanket.

“A blanket is our last attempt to accommodate people for sleeping on any given night. When we don’t have a blanket to give out, it’s a heartbreaking moment. It’s our last option,” Guest Care Specialist Andrew Hall said.

The Guest Care Center fills up with men looking for a good night's rest.

The Guest Care Center fills up with men looking for a good night’s rest.

For Portland Rescue Mission, our hope and goal is to get everyone who needs one a bed for the night and, ultimately, off the streets and into a new life of hope and restoration. When our Burnside Shelter is at capacity, though, handing out blankets becomes the next best option. Blankets become a lifeline and offer a final attempt to provide some semblance of relief and peace for the men and women who, at the very least, need a warm, thick and comfortable option for having to spend the night on the streets.

In response, our blanket exchange program has become a vital part of our ministry.

“I’ve slept in the bushes with my coat wrapped around me. I’ve stayed up at night because it was too cold to sleep. I’ve even sat on a bench in the transit mall just to keep warm,” said Gary, one of the men in our Connect program. “There’s just no comfort to be found without a blanket.”

To the benefit of our many men and women guests who come to the Mission for support, our blanket exchange program has also become one of our most unique resources that we offer. Anytime someone brings us a blanket, we’ll exchange him or her a fresh clean one, no matter what.

“Our policy is that every time a blanket is used, we’re going to wash it before it’s used by someone else,” said Director of Burnside Services Timothy Desper. “There are probably blankets in rotation that have been through 100 cycles. It’s a great use of our resources to continue providing them …

“When our guests get a blanket from us, we want them to have a nice, clean, valued experience with it.”

It’s also a ministry at the Burnside Shelter that goes beyond the need for warmth. It provides something else entirely.

“For many of these guys, they see the hand of God in a blanket,” Gary explained. “Especially this time of year when you’ve got to have that extra covering and your coat just isn’t enough. … With a blanket, it becomes much easier to sleep just about anywhere.”

Blankets start being handed out after dinner at the Burnside Shelter.

Blankets start being handed out after dinner at the Burnside Shelter.

The blanket exchange program is one of the essential elements of our Hope Ministries. If you stepped inside the Burnside Shelter on any given evening after dinner, without fail, you’ll see blankets being handed out on a regular basis. After our Burnside Shelter beds and mats are filled, the blankets become top priority for our guests. This means that if you want to donate to the Mission, gifting high-quality blankets is one of the best ways to give hope and restore life to the men and women experiencing homelessness.

The ideal blanket for most effectively helping those individuals is ones that are twin size and washable. Unfortunately, while disaster blankets and other one-time use blankets are okay, they’re often used only as a last resort, in hopes of minimizing the amount of unnecessary trash on the streets. Our blanket exchange program also keeps soiled blankets from being discarded and left on the sidewalks.

“The reality of Oregon is that blankets will get wet,” Tim said. “Any blanket that cannot be washed will probably be used once and thrown away.

“And if the blankets are too big or too fluffy, like those that are king-sized, it can be very cumbersome for someone on the street. Twin-sized blankets are much easier to use, and much more versatile.” Smaller fleece blankets can also be troublesome because they simply don’t provide enough warmth.

“We’ll accept any blankets back [from guests], even if we didn’t hand them out. Our guests know they can not only pick up a clean blanket, but bring it back the next day and get a new one,” Tim explained. “The acquisition of necessary stuff on the street is one of the biggest barriers to being able to navigate life. So by not having to carry around a blanket, it becomes one less burden they have to worry about that we can do for them.”

For more information on how you can donate items to the Mission, go to PortlandRescueMission.org/DonateItems.