Commissioners balk on federal funds for a homless shelter

Federal funding that would come to Grays Harbor County for an overnight shelter for homeless people is in an uncertain status after county commissioners tabled a decision on accepting a grant, when Commissioner Kevin Pine expressed concerns about the contract awarding $1,080,000 in pass-through funds to Chaplain’s on the Harbor, the local nonprofit that advocates for the homeless.

The Emergency Solutions Grant would fund a shelter to serve Aberdeen and Hoquiam. Chaplains on the Harbor already has a similar contract with the county for a shelter operation in Westport that serves about 30 people a night.

The call for bids to operate a shelter for Aberdeen and Hoquiam was put out under the previous makeup of the commission, before Pine and Warne joined in January.

Multiple times during the regular commissioner meeting Tuesday, Pine said he was concerned about proposed locations and referenced “two locations downtown, and a church in a residential area” with no specific addresses. He said one was discussed at a Department of Health meeting. Pastor Sarah Monroe with Chaplains on the Harbor said that no locations have been discussed officially because they were expecting to secure the funds prior to real estate discussions.

Administered by the county, the Emergency Solutions Grant awarded a total of $1.4 million for the time period July 2020 to June 2022. About $300,000 of that has been allocated to other shelter programs.

Commissioner Jill Warne said she wasn’t ready to make a decision on the new contract, adding, “I just feel like we’re not helping enough people with a low barrier shelter.” In an email response to multiple questions from Warne earlier that day, Cassie Lentz with Grays Harbor County Public Health and Social Services explained that low barrier does not mean no barrier or no rules, “and in the scope of work we require the sub recipient to submit a variety of policies and procedures that outline shelter rules and expectations and their protocols for responding to clients that may be a safety concern to staff or other guests to determine if they can safely stay or if other arrangements need to be made,” said Lentz.

The shelter program proposed in this contract doesn’t require participation in religious, behavioral health or other social services as a criteria for entrance.

Lentz explained that this is both a nationally recognized best practice and requirement of the funding sources.

Commission President Vickie Raines, who supports accepting the funds, noted that the overnight shelter in the old middle Swanson’s supermarket in Aberdeen will be closing at the end of this month, leaving about 30 people looking for a place to sleep, to which Pine replied there were 50 to 60 beds at the mission.

Chaplains on the Harbor was the only bidder that replied to the Request for Proposals from the county to receive the funds for an overnight shelter. Monroe said after the meeting that, in Westport, they assist about 30 residents who are struggling to find stable housing. They’ve administered this program for the past four years but the contract with the County is new this year.

“We definitely see this project as an extension on what we’ve built so far.” said Monroe, adding that they’ve learned a lot from the last four years.

“We were really excited. This is the first time that the county has ever issued a grant that would fully fund a shelter project like this, and I think it would be a game changer for what it means to provide services in Grays Harbor,” said Monroe. “I think they were able to do that because of the CARES Act (for COVID relief) and because of the pandemic,” she added referring to some portions of the funding that are aimed at keeping people off of the streets and struggling to find stable housing during the pandemic. The proposed contract with the county would spend just under $80,000 on administration, nearly $700,000 on shelter case management – things like helping to find permanent housing, medical aid, or employment, and finally just under $300,000 on the location, lease agreements, utilities, or hotel/motel space if needed.

After a day of conversations with constituents, Pine says “The current plan that’s been put in place, I don’t feel I have enough information and I don’t feel that a low-barrier shelter is a good thing for Aberdeen.” He said the commissioners have been asked to approve the contract for services before understanding the rules.

“I’m not against a homeless shelter,” says Pine. He adds, “we have a drug, alcohol and mental health problem in our county. In regards to homelessness we do have the mission with beds available — it was pointed out yesterday though that they are required to pray, that’s not true — participation is voluntary.”

In regards to the funding? “Moving forward, let’s find out the rules,” said Pine during a phone interview on Wednesday.

“The guidelines for the funding source require services to be low barrier, and define ‘low barrier’ as no pre-requisites to providing services,” says Lentz.

Lentz explained on the phone that they have been meeting regularly in many venues since 2015 to discuss addressing un-sheltered homelessness, and that when the Emergency Shelter dollars (ESG/ESF) became available in Summer/Fall 2020 Grays Harbor County and City of Aberdeen met regularly to build this plan.

Pine said that he has a different plan, “The plan is to work toward getting a dry shelter, the broad, low-barrier shelter — I just don’t believe that what they do in Olympia, Seattle or Portland has been effective. I’m not supportive of bringing those type of policies to Aberdeen.”