County commissioners hear homeless shelter proposal

Commissioners want discussion, problem-solving before awarding funds

For the first time in an official setting on Monday, the Grays Harbor County Board of Commissioners heard details of the city of Aberdeen’s proposal to purchase and operate a 100-hut homeless shelter village on the outskirts of the city limits in Junction City.

Aberdeen met the county’s April 30 deadline to submit applications for a $500,000 grant to purchase or renovate a homeless shelter property. The city narrowly approved a proposed application six days earlier during a contentious meeting when the mayor broke the council’s 6-6 tie.

Aberdeen’s proposal was the only qualifying response to the county’s $500,000 offering for capital investment in a homeless shelter, with another proposal from a pallet shelter village company offering partnership for any future sites.

After asking questions and raising concerns Monday, commissioners said the issue will need further discussion and troubleshooting before bringing a contract to a vote.

Should that be approved, the county aims to have a shelter project serviceable by July.

“If we’re waiting for the perfect solution, we’ll always be waiting,” District 2 County Commissioner Kevin Pine said Monday. “I feel our businesses are at their wits end, and if we keep on kicking this can down the road and doing nothing … we’re going to lose some of our local businesses, and I don’t think we can afford it.”

The city’s application included 18 letters of support from businesses, cities, addiction treatment providers and housing coordinators. Grays Harbor College, Five Star Dealerships, the Downtown Aberdeen Association, Grays Harbor Transit, the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport, Rognlins, Inc., and the cities of Cosmopolis and Raymond were among those backing the Junction City homeless shelter.

Supporters said the shelter would provide a safe healthy environment, lifting the risk and burden from Aberdeen’s businesses and infrastructure and easing strain on emergency services — a solution to problems arising from two unregulated tent campsites near the Chehalis River Bridge currently home to about 70 people, according to an estimate from Grays Harbor County Public Health.

“This is the closest we’ve come to solving this issue and bringing something viable,” Aberdeen City Administrator Ruth Clemens said in a presentation to commissioners Monday.

About three miles east of the current camps, just outside the city limits, Aberdeen is proposing to purchase and develop a four-acre property including a 5,500-square-foot former truck shop into a 100-bed emergency housing site featuring Conestoga micro-shelters, weatherproof huts with a twin-sized bed, which include windows, a locking door and small porch.

Housing nonprofit Coastal Community Action Program has agreed to operate the shelter for the city, while other service providers would be involved to facilitate behavioral health services and connection to other resources.

From purchase to renovation and staffing, the project could cost $4.1 million according to city estimates. The city has already committed $200,000 to the project, and along with the county’s money will seek state grants to fulfill remaining costs.

District 3 County Commissioner Vickie Raines, a “longtime supporter of low-barrier housing,” said she liked the city’s idea and plan but didn’t want to move forward until it addressed several potential problems. She advocated for a feasibility study at the shelter site to evaluate contamination and erosion risk.

She also said the proposed cost to purchase the property — $800,000 — is too high. The Grays Harbor County Assessor’s Office estimates the property has a total market value of $300,000, but Clemens said a recent appraisal conducted through the property owner came up with the higher amount.

“I applaud the city for the proposal,” Raines said. “I think it really could be of benefit. I just think you’re paying way too much for the location, and I don’t like the location. Not just for the juvenile detention facility — there are too many other issues with that piece of property.”

“I do think there’s other properties available,” Raines said.

Grays Harbor County Superior Court Judge Vini Samuel, who administers the court at the juvenile detention center adjacent to the proposed shelter site, told the Aberdeen council on April 24 she felt the shelter would create an unsafe environment for youth attending programs at the center. She informed the council she sees a docket of 60-70 kids per week at the court while the building also hosts the Grays Harbor Juvenile Detention school — students who are among the most vulnerable in the county.

Clemens vowed to work with the county judges on the issue, but also countered their concerns with the city’s perspective: that students at Aberdeen schools and businesses have dealt with the brunt of the county’s homelessness problem.

“That’s who we’re thinking about, we’re just kind of weighing the cost-benefits that way,” Clemens said.

She added, “I think there’s a lot of opportunity that we can solve these issues together as a community.”

District 1 County Commissioner Jill Warne asked questions about the model and security of the shelter village, stating that she is generally not in favor of the “housing-first” model and that she would like to see a larger section of the village accommodate sober living, and incentivize that lifestyle by providing individual huts while creating a congregate shelter area for non-sober residents.

“We want more to participate in getting on track,” Warne said. “I’d just like to see the emphasis changed to the sober living.”

Kimberly Stoll-French, housing coordinator for CCAP, said the shelter would not be able to force people into sober living, but could expand that part of the village if there was a need. She added that the shelter is meant to act as temporary transitional housing.

Clemens said the shelter would likely start with 35 huts and expand from there.

After a question from Warne, Clemens confirmed creating available shelter beds will allow the city to enforce ordinances prohibiting camping in public parks, public buildings, sidewalks and streets — laws that federal courts have found unconstitutional if adequate shelter is not available.

The U.S. Supreme Court is currently evaluating the constitutionality of anti-camping ordinances in Johnson v. Grants Pass and will hand down guidance next month about whether cities can punish public camping.

Warne asked how the ruling might change the way Aberdeen deals with homelessness.

“Even if they were to side with the city, it still doesn’t remove the issue of homelessness,” Clemens said. “People still need to find permanent housing, people still need help with treatment or mental health issues. We’re still going to run into the same issues, and we only have so many bed spaces in our jails.”

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or