Cold weather shelter an issue for Aberdeen

There are plans in place to bring back an emergency cold weather shelter this winter in Westport. However, with temperatures already dropping, a request for proposals to run one in Aberdeen went unanswered.

Coastal Community Action Program (CCAP) ran the cold weather emergency shelter in Aberdeen last winter, which “served up to 25 clients (per night) over the seasonal period,” said Cassie Lentz, Grays Harbor County Public Health and Social Services Healthy Places Division Manager, at a board of county commissioners workshop on Wednesday to address an emergency shelter.

“They served 180 individual clients, but on average they had 20-25, full every night,” she said.

Earlier this month, CCAP renewed most of its homeless services contracts with the county, but not the cold weather shelter due to capacity constraints, staffing issues and other considerations, Lentz told the commissioners at a meeting earlier in September.

The priorities for Wednesday’s workshop were “to identify next steps, roles, and timeline, if any, for cold weather services in Grays Harbor County,” Lentz told the commissioners.

Her job, she said, was to inform the commissioners as best she could as to the need for an emergency shelter, best practices and other data so the commissioners could decide the path forward.

Westport’s emergency cold weather shelter will proceed as it did last winter, Lentz said. Chaplains on the Harbor will again serve about 25 clients a night at its location.

Commissioners Kevin Pine and Jill Warne asked questions during the workshop about whether services would be available at any such shelter, who would get priority placement, current shelter capacity and rules, and what intake requirements would be. Meanwhile, representatives from Grays Harbor County Public Health and CCAP said what they needed was direction from the commission to proceed with another round of requests for proposals before any of those questions could be answered.

“You’re asking about hypotheticals with providers that haven’t submitted proposals. And these are not our funds. These are taxpayer dollars. And the legal method for appropriated taxpayer funding is to do a competitive process,” said Curtis Steinhauer, Grays Harbor County Public Health and Social Services Housing Coordinator.

“So questions about whether the Union Gospel Mission has religious requirements that we can’t fund, questions about whether the Community House is a good provider, questions about anything like that are not actionable by us as a staff until we get (direction from the commissioners) to open the competitive (request for proposals) process.”

Commissioner Vickie Raines called on Greg Clayclamp, who is the Housing and Community Services Manager for CCAP, to provide his thoughts on emergency shelters.

“The folks that we saw in the cold weather shelter were largely those folks who are impacted by behavioral health and substance abuse issues and don’t have other good options,” he said.

“And the reason we understood ourselves to be providing shelter to them was because this was the vulnerable population that was at risk of death or serious medical consequences if they weren’t sheltered during cold weather.”

There are programs for families and others for housing and emergency shelter, but Clayclamp said sheltering those vulnerable because of mental health and/or substance issues is part of the program.

Steinhauer at the conclusion of the workshop thanked the commissioners for their time and treating the need for an emergency cold weather shelter “like something that we need to respond to right now and urgently” for the area.

“As you know, we talk a lot about the best ways to address homelessness, and why we should address it, and Commissioner Warne, you’ve mentioned several times your ideas around giving a hand up instead of a handout, and I appreciate all that,” he said.

“But I just want to say for the record that this is one of the programs that very literally, no hyperbole, will prevent people dying, like dying now, in really terrible circumstances.”

He continued, “Everyone who does this work knows somebody over the last several years that lost their life sitting on the sidewalk in Aberdeen because it was cold and there was no resource for them. I think most of the ones I know all had problems with addiction. The ones I know all made really bad choices. But they’re still our family and friends, and we should try to create resources so they can stay alive.”

A new possibility this year is a state fund that can be tapped into for hotel and motel vouchers for emergency shelter. The county can enter into contracts with a coordinating entity to team with hotels and motels and use the voucher funds to provide shelter as needed.

“The funds would pay for the voucher, the hotel would have to accept that voucher, they would have to agree to house that client in exchange for the payment,” explained Steinhauer.

“There may be some considerations about whether they can refuse it and under what circumstances, but it would be like a business transaction between the agency who has the vouchers and the hotel saying, we have this voucher, do you have a room?”

There is just shy of $450,000 in state grant funds administered by the Washington State Department of Commerce available for the vouchers program. Pine recommended a request for proposals to administer the program be drafted, stipulating it be for families with children.

Public health staff will now draft a new request for proposals for cold weather shelter services and administration of the hotel and motel voucher program for children with families, said Lentz after the workshop.

“Once that is drafted it goes to the board of county commissioners to review/approve as part of their consent agenda,” she said. “We will aim for their meeting on Oct. 5 if at all possible. Once approved, the (request for proposal) is published on the public health and county websites, a legal notice is published, and we share broadly through our distribution lists to spread the word to interested and qualified agencies.”

Aside from the grant money available for the hotel and motel fund, there’s just over $340,000 in Department of Commerce grant funds available through the state emergency shelter fund to work with. These can be used for capital funding to acquire and renovate shelter locations, and for operational funding capped at $56 a night per bed.