Commisioners still pondering $1 million grant for shelter

The Grays Harbor County Commissioners are trying to decide whether to accept or pass on a federal grant of more than $1 million to establish an overnight, year-round shelter for homeless people, and met on Tuesday to get a deeper briefing on how the shelter would be run.

The week before, the process stalled at what would have been the awarding of a new contract with a non-profit group to provide an overnight shelter year-round when two commissioners had questions and concerns about where the shelter might be located and how it might be run. It was a workshop Tuesday, so commissioners took no formal action after their discussion, but Commissioner Vickie Raines, who mostly moderated the Zoom session and supports the shelter, said afterward that she does plan to bring the topic up at their next meeting on April 6.

Commissioners Kevin Pine and Jill Warne asked questions of Cassie Lentz, the Healthy Places Program Manager with the Grays Harbor County Public Health Department, and Rev. Sarah Monroe with Chaplains on the Harbor. Her organization was the only applicant to respond to a request for proposals from the county for a contract to operate such a shelter. The group has had a contract for the past winter with the county to operate a similar shelter for about 30 people in Westport and that ends March 31.

In Aberdeen, Monroe explained, “what we’re proposing is a 40-bed, total congregate shelter.” She said if they were awarded the contract with the county, “we expect what we would like to see is 35 regular beds and five beds for individuals that have high needs or disabilities, and provide some more intensive care for them and, hopefully, partner with Behavioral Health Resources and the county to provide them with intensive care and case management.” Monroe later also stressed that their intentions are not to replace or offer services in lieu of the temporary alternative shelter location (TASL), which is a small tent encampment adjacent to City Hall. The overnight shelter would not look like the TASL, which is home to the people who live there and stays open 24 hours a day. The overnight shelter would be located in a building, there would be no storage allowed on-site and everyone would be cleared out each morning.

Underlying problems

They do more than put people up for the night, they try to help them with underlying problems that lead to their homelessnes, she said.

“We support people through recovery, through getting whatever resources they might need, whether that’s driver’s license, mental health help, or pretty much anything we provide. We provide case management on staff for that,” said Monroe, adding that, “so far, I think we have 16 people on staff, and 13 of us are previously homeless and are now in recovery.”

There still seemed to be some confusion over prior discussions of proposed locations, but Monroe made it clear that if they were awarded the grant funds the location and final approval process would include stakeholders such as neighbors, city officials and businesses that might be near a proposed location.

Finding stable housing for clients and helping them exit the shelter program is a required benchmark for the federal grant. Lentz explained that the program records performance metrics. “We work with them to provide technical assistance because we’re absolutely beholden to those (metrics) by our state and federal granters.”

There are also many rules in the Westport shelter, “there are rules once they get there. They can’t use (drugs or alcohol) on-site. A lot of our rules are around behavior mitigation, as well. Like if you come in and you’re drunk and you go sleep it off, that’s one thing. (But) if you come in and create problems, or are violent or threatening then this is not the place you can be.”

Monroe also stressed that they ban people for certain durations, based on the severity of their offense, from a couple of nights to a couple of months to the duration of the shelter season.

Monroe explained that they require clients to buy into the program, clean up after themselves, and generally work toward a positive outcome for themselves. Most importantly, she said, they use peer support to help people who want to get help, “people who can talk to people and walk people through services and give them the support they need to walk out of the situation and get out of the situations that they’re in.”

Commissioner Pine asked the track records of similar programs, wanting to see where this type of program has succeeded in the past, although at other times he seemed to scoff when Lentz and Monroe both cited the success of similar approaches in cities such as Tacoma and Olympia.

Entry point for help

Monroe and Lentz both explained to the commissioners the importance of having services available, especially to those people going through addiction. “It’s a place for us to work with and identify people who really want to be in recovery and then take the steps that are needed to heal and offer them supportive employment,” said Monroe. She also introduced one of the people who has benefited from her program in Westport, Chris Olive, who is now employed through their organization.

“I grew up out in Westport, Commissioner Pine. I don’t know if you remember, but I wrestled for them,” said Olive. The 2002 1A Division Champion wrestled in the 130-pound class for Ocosta. Pine is wrestling coach at Grays Harbor College. Olive explained that just a few years ago he was homeless and on the streets, “So after high school, I joined the Air Force and started having some health issues. Their response was to overprescribe opiate-based pain meds.” Olive said he struggled with his addiction for almost a decade. “I met Sarah and everyone else at Chaplins on the Harbor when I was homeless in Westport.”

Olive said he’s been clean since November of 2017 and has been working with Chaplains through their Harbor Roots farm program since April of 2018. He said he’s become a certified peer support counselor and now also volunteers as a wrestling coach in Westport.

Lentz explained that providing an emergency shelter is a big part of the public health department’s mission for two reasons. First, it’s helpful in protecting people who have “chronic health conditions that ultimately can deteriorate their health and cause them to access really expensive services in the community,” she said. And secondly, it’s a portal to “connect people to services and support to increase stability.”

Broader homeless response

“The county and various cities in the county have done a lot of work to address unsheltered homelessness over the past several years,” said Lentz. In 2019, the Martin v. Boise federal appeals court case determined that a municipality, a city, or a county, cannot criminally punish someone for “survival” activities for seeking shelter or for being unsheltered if there is not an adequate alternative, such as the type of shelter the county is considering.

That means rules against some activities, such as camping on public property by the homeless, can’t be enforced without alternative locations.

Lentz explained to the commissioners that in the winter of 2019, the county invested a small amount of money in 25 beds that were available at an overnight shelter, but only when the temperature was below 35 degrees. This last winter, because of additional funding, the county was able to double the bed count. “So we continue to provide the 25 beds, in addition to the 25 beds in Westport. And the shelter was able to open seasonally, so every night from November to March,” explained Lentz. Two new resources came available in the form of the Emergency Shelter Fund and the Emergency Solutions Grant Coronavirus, which ultimately amounted to about $1.5 million in funding for Grays Harbor for the new emergency shelter beds. But both those locations are closing March 31.

The City of Aberdeen operates the TASL tent camp for homeless people next to City Hall and the city has wanted to close it for months, but has been unable to because of the eviction prohibition related to the pandemic. Although it can’t evict, it doesn’t have to accept new people and it doesn’t. The state recently extended the eviction moratorium to June 30, and another extension is already being discussed, Aberdeen Police Chief Steve Shumate said during a phone interview.

Also of concern to officials is the fact that a current overnight shelter at the old Swanson’s supermarket in West Aberdeen is scheduled to close to up to 40 people at the end of this month. Shumate said that if the current overnight shelter closes with no alternatives there is no enforceable ordinance that could keep those people from sleeping on the sidewalks. But he also notes that the city’s sit/lie prohibition ordinance has more to do with city property and the issue is different when people are sleeping on private property. That can be even harder to prevent.

When the overnight shelter opened, Shumate said he observed a reduction in the number of people sleeping on the streets or breaking into abandoned homes in Aberdeen. However, he said in the past 99 days, his department has responded to the current overnight shelter an average of once per day. He said a number of the calls have been disorderly, assault, domestic, weapons offenses, or aid calls.

Shumate added that because the TASL is a 24-hour site it could not be replaced by an overnight shelter and the eviction moratorium is what keeps that site open for the remainder of the clients.

Monroe broke down at one point during Tuesday’s Zoom meeting.

“I’ve buried dozens of people, 50 or 60 people. And in some ways, this is a piece of an effort to keep people alive,” said Monroe, trying to hold back emotions. She added, “and not just save lives, my hope is that we work ourselves out of this project, you know this is a stopgap measure to keep people alive.” Monroe said she’s seen a lot of deaths that could have been prevented, “if they had people in their lives who were watching out for them, whether they died of cold or exposure or lack of access to medical care because they didn’t know how to get help.”

“I’m tired of doing people’s funerals, and I will do whatever I can to keep people alive, as we try to actually end homelessness in an effective way,” said Monroe.

Access to the former ”river camp” for the homeless has been shut down for years now.

DAVE HAVILAND | THE DAILY WORLD Access to the former ”river camp” for the homeless has been shut down for years now.