Aberdeen council supports homeless shelter

City to apply for county’s $500K grant; proposes 100-bed microshelter village in Junction City

A proposal to pursue funding to create a large transitional homeless housing site in Junction City gained support of the Aberdeen City Council Wednesday evening, with Mayor Douglas Orr casting the deciding vote after the council locked horns in dramatic fashion.

From county authorities to business owners and residents, more than two dozen people lined up to speak on the proposed shelter during a nearly four-hour marathon meeting Wednesday, a few days after the city first publicly released the location and plans to develop a 100-bed micro-shelter village abutting the eastern edge of the city limits.

The contentious vote, which pitted the council at 6-6 before the mayor cast the tie-breaking vote, gives the go-ahead for the city administrator to submit those plans in a funding application to Grays Harbor County before an approaching an April 30 deadline.

The county began last month soliciting applications for a $500,000 award for permanent emergency homeless shelter projects, money that shelter proponents say will be an important piece of funding to take on renovation and construction of a multi-million dollar development.

Officials said Wednesday that the application’s cost estimates and other details surrounding the shelter are still prospective and could be subject to change, noting that the project will need final approval from the council should the county award the funding.

Wednesday’s city council was starkly divided, with Liz Ellis, John Maki, Sydney Newbill, Debi Pieraccini, Scott Prato and Stan Sidor voting in favor, while Riley Carter, David Gakin, Deb Hodgkin, David Lawrence, Kacey Morrison and Melvin Taylor were opposed.

But the narrow approval indicated a willingness to play ball after months of planning and years of failed initiatives on homelessness.

“We need to start somewhere, and it just keeps getting kicked further and further down the road all the time,” said Sidor, who strongly advocated for moving forward with the shelter project Wednesday. “I’m not saying we’re going to go out and sign on the dotted line and write a check tomorrow. But we need to at least go ahead and say, ‘let’s see if we can get a half million dollars from the county.’”

He added, “The proposal itself at this point in time may not be perfect, but it’s a start, and it’s something that we can continue to think through and continue to address all of the concerns.”

Opponents questioned nearly every aspect of the city’s shelter application, raising concerns over location, public safety, transportation, cost, capacity and environmental hazards, arguing there were too many problems and unknowns to move forward.

“I’m not saying that I’m against a shelter,” Council President Kacey Morrison said during discussion. “I think everybody recognizes we need to do something. This is not it.”

Model taking shape

According to its funding application, the city plans to purchase from private owners a four-acre property at 175 Hagara St. in Junction City — about three miles from downtown Aberdeen — to serve as a transitional shelter village. Costs would include a land purchase, fencing and infrastructure improvements, buying and building 100 small huts as housing, and remodeling an existing 5,500-square-foot building to host mental health, substance use services, life skills training and other services.

The land, which borders the Aberdeen city limits, would be annexed into the city following purchase. According to the application, the property is on a bus route and connects to downtown through a paved walking path along the Chehalis River.

The village style would be based on other transitional homeless housing sites in the Northwest, using the popular Conestoga micro-shelters, weatherproof huts with a twin-sized bed, which include windows, a locking door and small porch.

As currently proposed, the city’s application states that occupants would be “required to participate in supportive services and/or receive case management services that may include job skill development and readiness training.”

City Administrator Ruth Clemens said she overestimated price estimates in the draft application, which initially pegged total costs at more than $6 million. A revised version presented Wednesday had costs in the $4 million to $5 million range.

The city has already set aside $200,000 of its own money for the project, and in addition to the county’s $500,000 is banking on support from the state Legislature to fill the remaining gap.

Staffing and operating the shelter, which would be conducted through a third party provider, could cost $400,000 to $800,000 annually, according to the application.

Clemens said Wednesday that Coastal Community Action Program, a nonprofit that works on affordable housing projects and runs the county’s coordinated entry program, has expressed interest in taking on those duties, and has a “strong model” to make the program’s funding self-sustaining.

“That’s not to say the city won’t be on the hook for anything, but that is to say it does fulfil one of the requests by the council, a very important request by the council,” Clemens said.

Clemens said the city had originally proposed a large congregate shelter model, but CCAP suggested the village-style shelter, giving the ability to create separate areas for sober-living or women’s only areas.

Clemens said she fine-tuned the proposal in the last several weeks following a March workshop discussion with the city council.

Meanwhile the potential purchase would culminate more than a year of searching for the right permanent shelter location, an effort launched by County Commissioner Kevin Pine and former Mayor Pete Shave after the city council insisted a temporary shelter not be placed within the city limits.

But even with the proposed location far from downtown, its would-be neighbors in Junction City, including county authorities, are wary.

County judges weigh in

Vini Samuel, a Grays Harbor County Superior Court Judge who administers the court at the juvenile detention center adjacent to the proposed shelter site, strongly opposed the Junction City shelter location during Wednesday’s meeting. Samuel told the council she sees a docket of 60-70 kids per week at the court. The building is also home to the Grays Harbor Juvenile Detention school.

“These kids, who are the highest vulnerability that you can have in the community, would be having to face people who have mental health issues, drug issues, and all the things that people are concerned about with their businesses, and you’re asking these vulnerable children to deal with it,” Samuel said.

Samuel was supported by Superior Court Presiding Judge Katherine Svoboda, who said she understood the challenges the city was facing and supported the “housing-first” model, but had been “adamant for several years that this project does not belong next to the juvenile facility.”

“If you wouldn’t put this next to Aberdeen High School or the junior high, you shouldn’t put it here,” she told the council. “These kids are so much more vulnerable than your typical teenager.”

A representative from Sierra Pacific Industries, which lies just south of the proposed shelter site in Junction City, said the area is not safe for people entering or exiting on foot, noting that 150 log trucks enter and exit the facility each day.

Council members said those concerns were not apparent during previous discussions at committee meetings.

“If this isn’t a good way to go about it, then I’m very, very open,” Clemens said Wednesday. “I have not heard of any other location. I’ve heard from the council; I’ve heard from the community — nobody wants it in their wards. This kind of solves that issue, and it’s why the site was selected.”

Only the first step

The application period for the county’s $500,000 will close April 30, and it will then be up to the Grays Harbor County Board of Commissioners to decide whether to award the funds.

Going forward, the city will have the help of a consulting firm to develop further site plans and pursue more funding. That’s through a Department of Commerce-funded program intended to help rural communities carry out homeless housing projects.

Representatives from Destination, Hope and Recovery, a local service agency that provides case management and housing coordination, celebrated the council’s decision. Robin Cozad, DHR’s co-director, said he thought the micro shelter village proposal had “significant differences” from past attempts to facilitate encampments, noting the importance of creating a hub for services.

“We’re super happy this proposal is going to go through and that there’s going to be some form of movement, whether or not the county approves that proposal,” he said. “It’s something we’ve always wanted to see.”

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or clayton.franke@thedailyworld.com.

City of Aberdeen
The city of Aberdeen is pursuing funding to purchase a site for an emergency homeless housing village on Hagara Street in Junction City, just beyond the eastern edge of the city limits.

City of Aberdeen The city of Aberdeen is pursuing funding to purchase a site for an emergency homeless housing village on Hagara Street in Junction City, just beyond the eastern edge of the city limits.