A Woman, her Cat and the Kindness of Others on Display in a January Warming Center in Northeast Portland

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The center was set up during the recent January ice storm that left many people without power, as well as many people who are houseless needing a warm place to stay.

Jeff Gilbert’s job was to oversee the Northeast Portland warming center he helped set up in the Portland State Office Building. He works for the Oregon Department of Human Services (ODHS) Office of Resiliency and Emergency Management as the Regional Emergency Coordinator.

During the six days the center was open, January 12-16, Gilbert got to know many of the 170 or so people staying there. He helped them with applying antibacterial lotion to their wounds and drove several people to hospital emergency departments for immediate medical needed care. He talked to them, and he listened.

One woman he talked with came into the center with all of her belongings and her cat, Julius Caesar, a brownish stripey cat with some dots of darker color. The warming center had an area for people with pets.

“I thought the cat would have been really freaked out with the new surroundings and there were dogs there also, but Julius Caesar was a pretty cool cat,” Gilbert said.

As he talked with this woman he learned that she had an opportunity for medical treatment after leaving the warming center. The treatment would be for two weeks.

“The more I talked to her the more I realized the medical facility would not take pets and she didn’t have anybody to take her cat. She told me that Julius Caesar was the most precious thing in the world to her and she would do anything for him. She would die for him. I didn’t know what the solution would be, but told her I would find a solution,” Gilbert said.

So, Gilbert set out to find a temporary home for Julius Caesar, also known as J.C. He called animal shelters but they had no capacity to board another animal. He called area vets but most were closed due to the weather. And every time he walked by the woman and her cat, which was about 50 times a day, she would ask, “Did you find a solution?”

Carla Burns, a member of the ODHS Mass Care Response Team, and cat, Julius Caesar

Then, one day Carla Burns, a member of the ODHS Mass Care Response Team, (and a worker at the ODHS Virtual Eligibility Center, Portland) was handing out needed items, such as, clothes, shampoo, and soap to the guests in the warming center. Gilbert stopped by to talk with her. He kind of knew she was an animal person.

“Jeff told me a story about a woman going into the hospital for several weeks and he was trying to find a place for her cat. He took me in the room and I got to meet the cat. The woman, his owner, told me about all his traits:  he was really friendly and cuddly, but he might ‘get me’ with a claw sometimes. He was also leashed trained. I got to hold him and he was cuddly and lovey. A dog even came up and sniffed him, and he was fine,” Burns said.

Burns was already saying “yes” inside her heart, but she said she had to talk with her husband. They already had two dogs, Faith and Trinity, and two cats Sox and Casper. Her husband, Mike agreed to take in Julius Caesar.

“But I’m probably going to have to buy him a new power tool the next time we’re at Home Depot.”

“I had the honor of telling Julius’ mom, ‘I’ve got some really great news. J.C. is going to have a really great home for when you go to treatment.’ I could see the impact on her. Her demeanor changed markedly. She went from worry with no hope to instant relief. You could see the difference in her. Perhaps that change would also impact how well she recovers from her medical treatment,” Gilbert said.

The day came when the warming shelter was closing. The woman went to the medical facility. Julius Caesar, collar, leash, and his little kitty house kennel, came home with Burns. The cat is getting along with the other furry friends in Burns’ house. He likes to curl up in a basket by the clothes dryer. At night he shares a pillow on the bed with Burns, is four paws holding on to Burns’ head. His owner calls every other day to see how he is doing.

“In your life, how many times has someone asked you to take their most precious possession in the world and keep it safe? This woman had come into the warming center with all of her belongings in the world. They would literally fit into a small grocery bag – the kind you would get you get at Freddies. Of all the stuff we all have…it all means nothing compared to the love we have for our families, friends and dear pets,” Gilbert said.

And for Carla Burns?  

“I love animals. I hate to see them in any kind of bad situation. I also hate to see human beings trying to help themselves be hindered. I can take her cat for a few weeks. I am that person.”

About Author

Christine Decker is a Public Affairs Specialist for the Oregon Department of Human Services. Before working in communications she was a working journalist.

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