Cold weather shelters push forward with contingencies

Providers and health department working though details about location, occupancy

Over one month after cold weather shelter services were expected to begin, Grays Harbor County Commissioners have tentatively advanced proposals for two shelters they previously tabled after objections from the city of Aberdeen.

The Board of County Commissioners at a Dec. 6 meeting named proposals from two agencies, The Moore Wright Group and Chaplains on the Harbor, “apparently successful bidders,” meaning the board will get another chance to rubber stamp the contracts currently being crafted by public health officials and the agencies.

But as existing shelters fill up, details of those contracts — and whether they will be able to meet the city’s demands as well as the needs of those without shelter — are still uncertain while officials work against a time-sensitive grant and an increasingly harsh winter on the Harbor.

“The situation is very dire on the streets right now,” said Barbara Weza, interim executive director at Chaplains on the Harbor said at the meeting. “People are suffering. People are going to die if we do not act now.”

At the Dec. 6 board meeting, Commissioner Vickie Raines expressed her frustration that the two proposals on the table had been held up for so long.

“I’m disgusted with the city of Aberdeen, with the mayor, to be honest with you, that it has come to this that we cannot help people,” Raines said.

“We have people in all different types of weather: cold, rain, sleet, hail, snow — and all we’ve done is not act,” Raines added.

At a Nov. 9 city council meeting, Aberdeen voted 8-3 to “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.

Schave had previously sent a letter to the county commissioners voicing his concerns about the proposals, saying the city “rejects all candidates for the cold weather shelter,” citing “destructive and harmful conditions” in last year’s cold weather shelter downtown.

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 shelter during the winter months for “literally homeless individuals” and families.

The county already approved two other proposals last month, one for a 15-bed shelter in Westport run by Chaplains and the other for a hotel/motel voucher program run by Coastal Community Action Program.

Funding for the program, which amounts to $590,000 in total, comes from both federal and state grants, $325,000 of which is provided by a Department of Housing and Urban Development grant and must be spent by June 2023.

At the outset, the two “apparently successful bidders” proposals were both at locations within the Aberdeen city limits. According to initial responses to Grays Harbor Public Health Department’s request for proposals, which was issued in September, the Chaplains proposed a 35-bed shelter at the United Methodist Church on Broadway Street in Aberdeen.

In addition, The Moore Wright Group proposed a 7 to 12 family shelter at either one, or two, if necessary, of its properties on Pacific Avenue.

In November phone interviews with The Daily World, commissioners Jill Warne and Kevin Pine said, based on the city’s request, they wouldn’t approve contracts for proposals in Aberdeen.

After approving Chaplains’ proposal Tuesday, the commissioners directed Chaplains to find a new location for the shelter. Since the Chaplains only recently received that directive, Weza said, they are “back at square one” in terms of finding an appropriate building.

However, Weza said she plans to tour a couple of potential sites next week.

“Our job is to try and locate a site that would be safe for the community and would be on the transportation line so people would have easy access to it, and that would provide dignity for people,” Weza said in an interview with The Daily World.

Weza said she couldn’t say exactly where the potential sites were, but they were around the “Aberdeen area.”

Cassie Lentz, Healthy Places manager with the county, said at the commissioner’s meeting the final location for a shelter could be stipulated in the county’s contract with Chaplains and presented at a later meeting for the commissioner’s approval.

In an email to The Daily World, Lentz said she would be presenting more details about financial amounts for the contracts.

While the Chaplains work on location, The Moore Wright’s Group will have to navigate and comply with state residential code.

Before Aberdeen objected to cold weather shelters, the group’s proposal was tripped up by a state code limiting the number of occupants in a residence, according to Tanikka Watford, executive director of The Moore Wright Group.

In an email, Watford said Lisa Scott, the city’s community development director, informed her about the code at committee meetings evaluating the group’s proposal. Watford said the group amended the proposal hoping to serve the same amount of people but utilize an additional dwelling to the one on Pacific Avenue.

“After our amendment we were not told anything except our application was tabled by the county commissioner meeting,” Watford wrote.

Aberdeen Mayor Schave said city officials voiced concern because the proposal wasn’t in compliance with a state law, which states that “an adult family home may provide services up to eight adults.”

“​​While we had concerns with the MWG’s proposal, we are not opposed to families staying together. Our concern with their application was meeting state laws,” Schave wrote in an email to The Daily World.

Schave also said the main focus of the council’s discussion was around the Chaplains’ proposal for a shelter in Aberdeen rather than The Moore Wright Group’s proposal.

However, at Tuesday’s board meeting, Raines said the residential code was the city’s “excuse to not be able to allow” a cold weather shelter.

“We have people out in the weather we have had over the last couple of weeks and now we’re gonna say, ‘you have one too many kids so you can’t have this house,’ that’s ridiculous,” Raines said.

As agencies and county officials work through details of the new contracts, those in need of shelter have limited options.

James Horack has lived without a house in Aberdeen for seven years. Horack said he sometimes uses disability checks to purchase temporary hotel rooms, but his money recently ran out, and he has only enough to last him a few days.

Horack said he would be open to staying in a cold weather shelter, should one arrive, as long as it was in a “safe” area. Horack stayed at the 2020 cold weather shelter in the former Swanson’s supermarket building, which he said was “low barrier, but there were certain guidelines you had to follow.”

That wasn’t the case last year, he said. He said he avoided last year’s shelter because of poor conditions, opting to stay on the streets. Instead, he stayed in a “nook” near the Dollar Tree on Simpson Avenue, near the Sea Mar building, or even in the 24-hour Denny’s.

“A lot of times I just walked all night long,” Horack said.

Weza emphasized her search for a location with “human dignity,” as well as the increasing need for the shelter among vulnerable populations.

But recently, other shelter options for Horack haven’t worked out. He said he wasn’t able to secure a hotel voucher through the county funded program. In November, commissioners approved a contract with Coastal Community Action Program to provide hotel and motel vouchers through March 31.

Greg Claycamp, housing and community services director for CCAP, said the program filled eight vouchers at a time until recently, when that number bumped up to 19. Claycamp said the program prioritizes families with children, or those that can’t access existing shelter, in that order.

He acknowledged the voucher program was a “resource of last resort,” and that many people don’t fall into those categories.

Another substantial source of shelter in Aberdeen is currently inaccessible. Laurel Wiitala, director of the Union Gospel Mission, which can shelter up to 60 people, said the shelter is currently shut down because of a “severe outbreak” of the flu.

“We’re shut down, I’m not sure when the door is gonna open,” Wiitala said.

Even though the county also approved a congregate shelter in Westport last month to be run by Chaplains, the shelter is completely full, Weza said, although Chaplains is working with the county and the city of Westport to secure 10 additional beds.

“It is heart wrenching when our staff have to turn people away because we do not have adequate beds to keep people out of the cold,” Weza said at the commissioner’s meeting.