Cold weather shelters face hiccups and delays

Residents voice concern about public safety in Westport; other shelter site tabled

Since July 2022, the task of providing emergency cold weather shelter services in Grays Harbor County has proved to be, while not necessarily concerted, continually complex.

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.

In recent weeks, formal requests by Westport city officials, which echoed public pushback against the shelter, have halted plans to expand services at the county-funded cold weather shelter that has operated on West Spokane Street since November.

Meanwhile, Grays Harbor County Commissioners tabled the vote on a proposed site for a separate cold weather shelter near Aberdeen, on state Route 105 west of the Bishop Athletic Complex, citing a need for more specific contract language regarding shelter policies. Commissioners also prompted the shelter’s contractor, Chaplains on the Harbor, to confirm logistical questions surrounding the proposed site, further delaying the opening of a service initially projected to start Nov. 1.

The hold ups at both of the shelters has resulted in what Barbara Weza, executive director for Chaplains on the Harbor called a “holding pattern,” with no administrative action being taken.

Public pushback

Following a public comment period at a Jan. 9 meeting of the Westport City Council, the council voted to oppose the shelter’s expansion, for which a contract was approved by the Grays Harbor Board of County Commissioners Jan 3. meeting.

Westport Mayor Rob Bearden, upon the council’s direction, sent a letter to county commissioners Jan. 10 stating the city’s objection to “expansion and further funding” of the shelter, according to Bearden.

Bearden said the city also sent the matter of cold weather shelters to the Westport Planning Commission for “further review,” although didn’t say by press time whether the review would be regarding only the proposed expansion, or of the temporary shelter’s existence altogether.

The planning commission met Tuesday, but members did not discuss the issue or make a recommendation to the council. Planning Chair William Leraas said the shelter topic would probably be on future commission agendas.

“This group will look at zoning, what’s allowed in that area, what’s allowed in that building, and make recommendations to council that maybe we need to change something,” Westport Public Works Director Kevin Goodrich said at the meeting.

About 10 Westport residents voiced concerns about the shelter and its public safety implications, a sentiment that mirrored comments at the Jan. 9 council meeting. At both meetings, residents reported an increase in pedestrians on the streets and hazards, including used needles and feces, in public spaces.

Lawauna Cappa, who identified herself as a mother of three, called for the city to take action on the shelter, saying she no longer lets her children walk around the block unsupervised after she witnessed a person with a machete walking down her street. She said she lives within eyesight of the shelter, but didn’t say whether she’d seen the person come from the shelter or not.

Westport Police Chief Nate Saunders said the police do see “an influx of people coming into town going to the shelter either getting a meal or a bed for the night,” but the department “hasn’t seen a lot of calls and no uptick in crime that’s being reported” since the shelter opened in November.

He said the department received six calls for shoplifting and one call for assault in the month of December.

Since the Jan. 9 city council meeting, Saunders said, the police have been conducting “extra patrols” in the area around the shelter, although the small police department has only seven officers, including Saunders. He encouraged those witnessing suspicious behavior to call the department.

“We appreciate citizens bringing this forward in the city council, and I highly encourage the citizens to call us when they do see something,” Saunders said.

Chaplains on the Harbor has operated a cold weather homeless shelter in its old schoolhouse building on West Spokane Street, at least in some capacity, for five years. Since Nov. 1, 2022, Chaplains has operated a 15-bed cold weather shelter using funding from the county’s cold weather shelter program.

In December, the Chaplains requested extra funding from the county to expand the shelter’s capacity. Weza said the Chaplains were forced to turn people away during the December cold snap because of capacity issues.

The Board of County Commissioners approved a contract amendment with Chaplains for an additional $45,000, which, according to the contract, would have allowed the shelter to expand by 10 beds. Those beds only would’ve been used should the shelter reach full capacity, Weza said, which hasn’t happened as often in the last few weeks.

Staying at the shelter

Inside the shelter Monday evening, several guests expressed gratitude for the shelter, saying they would be sleeping on the streets if the shelter wasn’t available. Denise, a guest who chose not to be identified with a full name, said she became homeless three years ago after living in Long Beach for 45 years. The 65-year-old said she had been sleeping in bushes and near bank buildings in Aberdeen before she started using the shelter 10 days ago, and since then, the shelter staff has been “clean, organized and professional in their work.”

Weza said Chaplains staff are trained in peer support and counseling, as recovery coaches, with crisis intervention, first aid, and some have lived experience with being homeless. The shelter has a “three strike” behavioral policy, Weza said, in which repeat misbehaviors result in indefinite expulsion from the shelter.

That happened once this season, when a “belligerent” woman, according to Chaplains staff, was kicked out of the shelter and proceeded to break a shelter window. Chief Saunders said Chaplains staff called the police, who cited the individual for trespassing. But Saunders said that incident has been the only call police responded to at the shelter this season.

“There’s people who come to town to cause trouble, and there’s people who come to town seeking help, to get warm,” one guest named Anthony said Monday from the shelter. “If you come here to get help, the shelter’s here. If you come here to cause trouble, then you have the police, which are very wonderful, they help out.”

The shelter only operates at night, and at 10 p.m. the doors lock, and no guests are allowed in or out until the morning, Weza said.

County Commissioner Kevin Pine, whose district includes Westport and Aberdeen, said he, along with Chaplains, talked with Mayor Bearden about expanding the shelter prior to its approval by the county board, and the city didn’t object to the action.

Should the city of Westport, after further review, request the contract be terminated and the shelter shut down, the county board has the option to terminate the contract “for convenience,” but only after a 30-day notice period, according to the contract.

Shelter services are scheduled to end by March 31, 2023, per the contract.

“I think it’s going to be a real challenge for us to shut this thing down between now and the end of March,” Goodrich said, adding that the planning commission’s review will “help the council make decisions moving into that next cycle of cold weather shelters.”

A ‘near-Aberdeen’ shelter

A separate shelter near Aberdeen — at a site west of the Bishop Athletic Complex — is yet to be approved by county commissioners, and contractors will need to shore up questions surrounding the shelter before services can begin.

The Chaplains on the Harbor initially proposed a 35-bed shelter a few blocks from the Aberdeen downtown core in October, but the location was an issue. The city of Aberdeen voted to reject proposals for cold weather shelters within the city limits, with Mayor Pete Schave citing the destructive and harmful conditions of last year’s shelter to the downtown area, which was not run by Chaplains.

The board later named Chaplains an “apparently successful bidder” for the shelter, but asked for certain contingencies to be provided with the contract, including location and policy.

After a period of searching, the Chaplains identified the current proposed site, which is a three-bedroom house at 267 state Route 105. Weza said the site, which is outside city limits, received verbal approval from Schave, and could potentially host 20-25 people.

Weza said Chaplains has been hiring and planning for the shelter, and has lined up inspections with the fire marshal, code enforcement, legal and public works departments while waiting for the site to be approved by the county.

But before they could approve the site, commissioners said contract details — behavioral policies, specifically such as a “check-in, stay in” and “good neighbor” policies — that were included in the Chaplains’ initial contract, were missing from the most recent version.

“When chaplains submitted their response through the (Request For Proposals), there were rules in there that we liked and that was a big portion of why we decided to move forward, and they are missing from the contract now in the scope of work,” said District 1 County Commissioner Jill Warne.

District 3 County Commissioner Vickie Raines said the county sheriff’s office hadn’t yet been briefed on the site, and details about bus routes needed to be confirmed before the site could be approved.

“We review (other) contracts all the time, but commissioners don’t actually get involved to the detail we’re seeing here,” Raines said. “I really think that Chaplains on the Harbor needs to make the connections with the transit and have someone they go to at the sheriff’s office to make sure if an issue occurs out there, they know who to call. We shouldn’t be doing that work for them, they need to be doing that job.”

In an interview with The Daily World, Grays Harbor Transit General Manager Ken Mehin said there is currently no organized system specific to the cold weather shelters, although shelter guests have used transit buses, which are currently free, to travel to Westport.

Mehin said he will meet with relevant parties to discuss the logistics of a more organized transportation system to the cold weather shelters.

An approaching deadline

Funding for cold weather shelters comes from both a Community Development Block Grant through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and an Emergency Solutions Grant through the Washington Department of Commerce. The grants must be used by June 2023 and September 2023, respectively.

In addition to the contracts with Chaplains, the county provides funds to the Coastal Community Action Program for hotel and motel vouchers, as well as The Moore Wright Group, which hopes to open a shelter for families in Aberdeen soon.

But because shelter projects have been delayed or altered, the county has a pocket of unallocated money that was originally expected to be used on shelters.

According to a cold weather shelter budget assessment presented to county commissioners last month, which was presented by Grays Harbor County Public Health’s Healthy Places Manager Cassie Lentz, the county has roughly $130,500 in potentially remaining funds if all projects were fully funded.

However, that was before Westport objected to shelter expansion, and Lentz confirmed that the county hasn’t yet committed the full amount of its grant funding.

Lentz said those funds could potentially be used for something other than cold weather shelters, but those funds would have to provide homeless services and, in some form, be related to COVID-19 aid.

But finding another use for the funds would require public health to conduct some sort of competitive bidding process, which is usually time consuming, Lentz said, adding any funds not spent by the deadline would have to be relinquished.

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or