Proposals to contract two cold weather homeless shelters in Aberdeen through a county program have fizzled after the city objected to hosting the shelters inside the city limits, sending contractors and county officials scrambling to find a new location as temperatures drop and winter storms set in.
The Aberdeen City Council voted Wednesday 8-3 in favor of requesting to the county that Aberdeen “be taken off the list for consideration of a cold weather shelter” for this winter, affirming earlier objections from Aberdeen Mayor Pete Schave to the shelter proposals.
Both Schave and city council members cited conditions at last year’s cold weather shelter in Aberdeen they say were destructive and detrimental to the city — particularly to the downtown business district.
In phone interviews on Wednesday, county commissioners Kevin Pine and Jill Warne both said the county would not proceed with a cold weather shelter in Aberdeen if the city wasn’t on board.
“Aberdeen doesn’t want it, and if Aberdeen doesn’t want it, then it shouldn’t be there,” Warne said.
Pine said in a phone interview Wednesday that the county has asked the contractors who proposed cold weather shelters in Aberdeen to search for alternative locations, but that those entities hadn’t yet reported any new locations back to the county.
“That’s where we’re at right now,” Pine said.
‘A tremendous and continual ask’
As part of the county’s 2019-2024 Plan to Address Unmet Housing Needs, the county runs a cold weather shelter program to provide temporary winter arrangements for “literally homeless individuals,” in which the county creates contracts with community partners who operate the shelters in Grays Harbor from Nov. 1 to March 31 — the “cold weather” season.
The program is funded through a number of both federal and state grants, according to Grays Harbor Public Health Communications Officer Dan Hammock. Hammock said funding for the Aberdeen shelters would come from both an Emergency Solutions Grant through the Washington Department of Commerce and a Community Development Block Grant through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Up to $815,000 is available for the program for the 2022-2023 winter season — $595,000 for cold weather shelters and $220,000 for hotel and motel voucher programs, according to a request for proposals the health department issued in September.
The request set an estimated timeline of Nov. 1 for a service start date.
It received four proposals, two of which — a shelter in Westport run by Chaplains on the Harbor and a hotel and motel voucher program run by the Coastal Community Action Program — the board of county commissioners approved at its Tuesday meeting.
The Westport shelter will provide 15 beds for adults 18 and older in a building on West Spokane Street, while CCAP will provide vouchers to families with children, and individuals with disabilities who cannot access any other shelter resources.
The two other proposals were for shelters within the Aberdeen city limits — a 35-bed shelter in the Methodist Church on 2nd Street and Broadway Street to be run by Chaplains as well as a 7 to 12 bed shelter at 1414 Pacific Avenue to be run by The Moore Wright Group.
Those proposals, however, were met with contingencies from an evaluation committee.
The evaluation committee, which included Ruth Clemens, the city administrator for Aberdeen, and Lisa Scott, the community development director for Aberdeen, reported its findings about the proposals to the county commissioners at an Oct. 25 meeting. The committee suggested the Chaplains proposal be named an “apparently successful bidder,” meaning the contract might be approved so long as the proposal met certain contingencies. Those included “plans to identify an alternative location if the proposed location is not feasible,” and to conduct further community outreach.
The committee also recommended the commissioners table The Moore Wright Group’s proposal for re-evaluation pending further work with the city of Aberdeen.
Those speed bumps for the Aberdeen shelters then turned into a roadblock when Schave sent a letter to the county commissioners on Oct. 28, writing that the city of Aberdeen “respectfully rejects all candidates for the cold weather shelter and asks that the applicant and the county work together to find other potential host locations outside of the Aberdeen city limits.”
In the letter, Schave writes that the county’s timeline for the program was too ambitious and that the city council wasn’t given ample time to review and discuss the impacts of the proposals.
The mayor also cited the “destructive and harmful conditions last year’s cold weather shelter imposed” on the community, saying the shelters are a “tremendous and continual ask of Aberdeen residents.”
Last winter, the county approved a contract with local nonprofit Whole Harbor to provide a cold weather shelter above the Harbor Calvary Chapel in downtown Aberdeen.
In a phone interview, Pine agreed that last year’s cold weather shelter in Aberdeen was “very detrimental to the business district” because of problems with police calls, break-ins, fires and defecation.
At a Nov. 9 city council meeting, Aberdeen Police Chief Dale Green said last year’s shelter tripled the department’s call volume, and Fire Chief Dave Golding added the fire department responded to 34 calls to the location of the cold weather shelter last winter.
At a commissioner’s workshop in June, Pine said the commissioners agreed on new expectations of how the shelters should be run, including a requirement that shelters prohibit residents to leave throughout the night, which Pine and Schave both said was an issue at last year’s shelter.
Pine and Warne both said the Chaplains’ proposal outlined acceptable operational procedures, but that the county didn’t approve the shelter because of its proximity to downtown Aberdeen.
“I think that the guidelines that are in the proposal from Chaplains for the Aberdeen spot are much better than what we had last year, our huge concern on that was just location,” Warne said.
Schave said he wasn’t confident the operation of this year’s shelter would improve from previous years.
“Anybody that shopped in this county mostly went to Aberdeen, for years — maybe not so much anymore,” Shave said at an Oct. 28 county commissioner workshop. “Aberdeen has contributed a lot to this county over the years. Our businesses in Aberdeen are struggling (against) something fierce. Most of them have serious problems because of this homeless issue and the location of the homeless in the downtown area.”
In an Oct. 30 email to the county commissioners, Aberdeen City Council member Dee Anne Shaw said the cold weather shelter was needed, but also that conditions in last year’s shelter were “unsafe and disruptive” due to “lack of adequate resources and the appalling poor management.”
While Shaw agreed the nature of last year’s shelter harmed the community, she said the city should still attempt to work with the county to either find a new location or force the shelter to operate with more regulation, rather than shunning the county’s program altogether.
“I just worry that we are measuring our response based on last year’s abysmal operation,” Shaw said.
“We have a lot of poverty, not just in Aberdeen, but in the county, and our goal should be to have a cold weather shelter in every community on Grays Harbor,” Shaw said. “To not have one in Aberdeen would be incredibly sad and an incredibly poor public policy.”
Council member Liz Ellis also recognized that previous shelters had been run “without proper oversight,” but that the city should still provide some sort of shelter for homeless people during the winter months.
“My concern is that we turn down this county-funded shelter, and then we have nothing for people who aren’t doing crime and are on a waitlist for housing, but it hasn’t come yet,” Ellis said.
Working against the weather
The first potent storm of the winter brought roughly five inches of rain to Grays Harbor County Nov. 4, flooding several streets with water, and temperatures dropped below freezing early Nov. 9, reaching a low of 27 degrees. Meteorologists are predicting this winter will be colder and wetter than average.
At the Oct. 28 workshop, County Commissioner Vickie Raines said the commissioners needed to work “as quickly as we can” to find other shelter options.
According to Hammock, the board of commissioners hasn’t set a deadline for identifying an alternative location, although Warne said the search is on for a new cold weather shelter elsewhere in the county, but that search hasn’t yet yielded any results.
“We’ve been bouncing stuff off of each other and the mayor, just trying to brainstorm,” Warne said.
At the Oct. 28 commissioner’s workshop, which included Schave and Clemens, Pine said he had previously discussed with the National Guard the possibility of securing a large, heated tent to serve as a cold-weather shelter. The commission discussed possible locations for the tent, including the Bishop complex in South Aberdeen, but that was before the city council affirmed the mayor’s rejection of shelter proposals within the city limits.
Grays Harbor County Social Services Manager Cassie Lentz said at the workshop that the Chaplains had indicated they would be open to exploring other options for shelter locations outside of Aberdeen.
“We’re working towards providing a shelter for people that are without shelter in the winter months,” Pine said. “But if we can’t find something, we’re not required to move forward on it.”
According to the health department’s initial request for proposal, the county “reserves the right to reject any and all submittals” for cold weather shelters. In addition, a federal court found in Martin v. Boise that counties and municipalities aren’t legally required to provide shelters for homeless people, so long as they also don’t criminalize homelessness.
However, the funding that would support cold weather shelter services at one or both Aberdeen locations is time-limited, according to Hammock. Funds from the Emergency Solutions Grant must be expended by September 2023 and funds from the Community Development Block Grant must be expended by June 2023.
“If the Board (of county commissioners) does not move forward with a shelter contract, those funds could be either re-allocated to other eligible projects, if possible, or if not used would be de-obligated (i.e. relinquish funding back to State),” Hammock wrote in an email to The Daily World.
Schave said the city council’s Wednesday vote means, barring another vote on the topic from the council, that the city will remain opposed to a shelter for the 2022-2023 winter season.
But the city council’s assertion doesn’t legally restrict the county from approving a proposal for a cold weather shelter in Aberdeen despite the city’s objection.
The city’s legal right to block a cold weather shelter could come from — rather than the city council vote — an injunction in court, where the city would have to explain how a shelter negatively impacts the community, Raines wrote in an email.
Pine and Warne both indicated, however, that the county would not override the city’s interest and planned to appease the city’s objection.
“We’re one community, and it’s obviously beneficial for everybody to work together,” Pine said. “So if the city of Aberdeen’s not supportive of it, then, in my opinion, the county shouldn’t move forward on putting in a cold weather shelter.”