County commissioners hesitate to release homeless shelter funds

Legal and budget concerns, along with pushback, laced discussions at Tuesday meeting

Two weeks after the Grays Harbor County Board of Commissioners first officially considered awarding funds for the purchase of a permanent homeless shelter, the money still hasn’t been put on the table.

Two commissioners said at a Tuesday meeting they wanted to wait at least one more week before putting forward $500,000 for another entity to buy or renovate a homeless shelter property, citing concerns about the future of a homeless fund and potential legal concerns raised by a public commenter at the meeting. That was two weeks after the money was tabled so legal staff could further review the document outlining the county’s request for homeless shelter projects.

District 3 County Commissioner Vickie Raines made the initial suggestion Tuesday to hold off on issuing the request for proposals.

“I just want to make sure when we approve an RFP (Request for Proposals) that there’s no question on it, that it’s going to move forward that there are no legal issues,” Raines said.

During discussion, Raines said she “raised an eyebrow” earlier in the meeting when a public commenter, Steve Jensen, said the county’s request for proposals was on the same course as one in San Diego that became defective because it did not include feasibility study guidance to respondents. Jensen claimed a request for proposals was withdrawn after he “legally challenged” it on those grounds.

Addressing the board for six minutes after another individual yielded his time, Jensen also expressed his disapproval of the shelter initiative, including concerns that the county money would not be enough to continually operate the shelter, and that a low-barrier shelter without mandated sobriety — the statewide model and a requirement for emergency housing projects — wouldn’t be effective.

In a written statement, Jensen said told commissioners if the county approved the request for proposals he would “rabidly and constantly wear you out and down in court.”

The Daily World couldn’t verify Jensen’s claims about his legal challenges to San Diego shelter proposals.

“I’m okay with waiting a week to make sure that legal can review and make sure we’re covered in that feasibility area, because that is concerning, and I don’t recall feasibility being part of the requirement,” District 1 Commissioner Jill Warne said.

District 2 County Commissioner Kevin Pine has pushed the board during February meetings to promptly approve the RFP document, which was first presented Feb. 12. Issuing the request would open an application period slated to end April 30. Commissioners would then evaluate applications and award funds to a qualifying agency of their choice.

“I think it’s imperative for this community to do something, step forward,” Pine said during Tuesday’s meeting. “We could continue to do nothing for our community and just look for the perfect solution, and we wait for another year, two, three years down the road and still do nothing?”

The most recent shelter discussions are a role reversal from years past, as Raines has been supportive of shelter proposals while Pine and Warne have hesitated. In 2021, Pine and Warne passed on an opportunity for nearly $1.5 million in state and federal funding to develop a homeless shelter in Aberdeen, stating they were not in favor of providing a “low-barrier” shelter that did not mandate sobriety or treatment for an overnight stay.

Last winter, Pine and Warne backed away from a contract for a temporary shelter in Aberdeen at the behest of the mayor and city council. Shortly after that, Pine and Aberdeen Mayor Pete Schave began a search for a permanent shelter site.

Pine said in an interview Wednesday he’s in support of a “safe secure location for the unhoused, and at the same time it will give a reprieve to our local businesses and citizens.”

Warne acknowledged that the shelter won’t be able to turn away guests based on sobriety, but said she wants the shelter to be a “doorway into the rest of the programs and getting help” as well as a “tool to give the police the ability to do their jobs.”

“It’s going to serve the community as a whole,” Pine said. “Will it solve the problem, no, we’ve always had homeless. Will it alleviate — that’s the goal. But doing nothing is not an option.”

Raines said at Tuesday’s meeting she didn’t mean to put up a blockade to starting the process, but also expressed concerns about the strength of the county’s Homeless Housing fund and suggested lowering the grant amount from $500,000 to $350,000.

With federal and grant money, as well as county taxes, the homeless housing fund contributes to a variety of emergency and supportive housing contracts, such as transitional and rapid rehousing programs.

About $8.3 million from the fund has already been allocated for 2024. The homeless shelter project would draw from a pot of another $2.6 million in cash reserves, which the county aims to keep above a certain floor.

Grays Harbor County Public Health Director Mike McNickle said his department recommended awarding up to $500,000 for the shelter to keep the fund at a level that would ensure it could fulfill obligations for 2024.

McNickle said a $500,000 award would be a “one-and-done” without opportunity for further funding. Shelter proposals would have to demonstrate readiness, including a viable site and other funding sources. The health department estimates a shelter would cost $2 million yearly to operate.

For Raines, concerns about the homeless housing fund involve potential future obligations not yet apparent.

The funds set aside by the RFP for a potential homeless shelter purchase are sourced from county document recording fees.

After a full $500,000 award, McNickle said, $121,000 would be left in recording fees —dollars that can only be used for specific requests.

According to state law, municipalities can pass resolutions to establish their own homeless housing programs separate from their respective counties. While that has not happened in Grays Harbor County, that legal action would entitle such a city to a certain percentage of the recording fees in the county’s homeless housing fund.

“If we had a request by other jurisdictions or other entities, especially municipalities, to be able to provide funding for them. … I do think leaving some reserve in that account is important should other issues need to be addressed,” Raines said.

Raines said neighboring city governments might want to request their share if the county awards funds to the city of Aberdeen, a prominent potential partner. Aberdeen City Administrator Ruth Clemens confirmed earlier this month that the city would be applying for the money to buy a homeless shelter building and urged commissioners on Feb. 12 to release the RFP in a timely manner so the city could leverage funding in the current state legislative session.

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or