County warming shelter request goes unanswered

Commissioners likely to use homeless funds for hotel voucher, street outreach programs

An emergency warming shelter operating with funding from Grays Harbor County is unlikely this winter after a request for shelter proposals went unanswered last month.

Grays Harbor County Public Health issued a request for proposals for cold weather shelter emergency services — such as a congregate shelter, hotel vouchers and more individualized options like tiny homes or pallet shelters — on Sept. 6, and left the application open until Oct. 23, but did not receive any applications. The agency aimed to return the proposals to the county board for approval in November and start services that same month.

With $530,000 in state and county funding for homelessness allocated to emergency shelter for this winter, the Grays Harbor County Board of Commissioners agreed at a meeting on Tuesday to move toward expanding existing contracts for services that do not involve a congregate shelter.

Grays Harbor County Public Health confirmed with the Washington State Department of Commerce that those are suitable uses for the funds, which include $160,000 in emergency housing funds from the state, which will expire in 2025, and $370,000 in county document recording fees that are not time-sensitive.

Heeding recommendations from public health, county commissioners suggested sending an extra $250,000 to Coastal Community Action Program’s hotel and motel voucher program, as well as $100,000 to Chaplains on the Harbor to expand its day center and street outreach programs.

“That would be a good start, at least to show we’re trying to spend the money that we have appropriately, and while we don’t have a shelter we’ll try and house as many as we can in the hotel- motel situation, and utilizing Chaplains’ street outreach program I think will be beneficial,” District 3 Commissioner Vickie Raines said Tuesday.

Those amounts won’t be finalized until commissioners approve amended contracts for the agencies, which could happen later this month, said Cassie Lentz, housing program coordinator for public health.

CCAP housing and community services director Kimberly Stoll-French said the hotel voucher program could facilitate an extra 15-20 rooms with the funds, more than double the current 10-room capacity of the program supported by a $200,000 yearly contract.

Stoll-French said hotels have offered lower rates for rooms through the program as winter months approach.

“That partnership really, really helps us out and allows us to serve possibly more households, because the funding goes further,” she said.

Stoll-French said the program prioritizes people who are “medically fragile and vulnerable,” or households with children, pregnancies or life-threatening illnesses.

The county also funded hotel vouchers last winter, when the program had the highest rate of participants who exited to permanent housing than any other county-sponsored emergency shelter service, according to Lentz. In an email, Lentz attributed that statistic to “the consistency of having a dedicated hotel room and case management team working with that client over time,” and noted that “exits to permanent housing is a potentially incomplete measure of success reflecting on the shelter program itself,” given other variables at play once an individual leaves the shelter.

Lentz told commissioners on Tuesday that “ultimately we would like to see a continuum of options,” and added in an email that “partners working with individuals living outside often advocate for a drop-in (shelter) option that could be accessed when the need arises and/or need for shelter is temporary.”

Providing emergency shelter during the winter months is part of Grays Harbor County’s five-year plan to address homelessness, which was published in 2019.

Last winter the county partnered with Chaplains on the Harbor, a social services organization, to provide a 15-bed congregate shelter at the group’s 20,000-square-foot church in Westport. Chaplains has operated an emergency cold weather shelter, at least in some capacity, off and on for the last eight years, according to Executive Director Barbra Weza. The shelter was the only county-sponsored shelter in Grays Harbor last winter.

Weza said the decision not to apply for an overnight shelter this year stemmed from client needs. At the end of the shelter season last year, Chaplains reassessed community needs in Westport, and by surveying shelter guests found the majority of people were “most utilizing” services like showers, laundry, meals and case management, not necessarily overnight shelter.

The Westport shelter served 136 separate individuals, 36 of whom were transferred into coordinated housing entry and six of whom reached permanent housing, according to data from public health.

“What we really felt that was most asked for were the services we could provide in a day shelter, and that we could really be intentional about meeting with people one on one, getting them engaged in housing, mental health, SUD (substance use disorder) services, and at the same time, building relationships with people, building that trust,” Weza said in an interview.

Through a contract with the county, Chaplains has provided those services three times per week, four hours per day at the church for the past few months. Weza said additional funding could bump that schedule to five days per week.

More funding could also help Chaplains expand its street outreach program, in which peer-certified staff visit outlying communities to help connect them with services.

“That’s our main focus, is relationship building and bringing people back into community,” Weza said Tuesday.

Weza said the decision to move away from the overnight shelter model was not influenced by a city of Westport ordinance passed Oct. 19 imposing stricter rules for temporary homeless shelters. The ordinance required Chaplains to apply for a permit to run the shelter, keep a daily log with names of all shelter guests, and gave the mayor authority to determine the shelter’s maximum capacity.

The city began to draft those regulations earlier this year after the county awarded extra funding to Chaplains to expand overnight capacity at the shelter last winter, which many residents objected to at public meetings.

That extra funding was available because other shelters fell through due to problems with location after the Aberdeen City Council asked that a shelter not be operated within the city limits.

County commissioners hoped to streamline the city-shelter relationship this year by asking shelter providers to include a letter of support from the relevant municipality and include it with their application, but no applications were submitted.

The Moore Wright Group, another social services organization, applied to host a 7-12 bed shelter in one of its residential houses last year, but concerns over city code and occupancy snagged the proposal. Tanikka Watford, the group’s executive director, said that because past shelter applications hadn’t yielded any county funding, the group “decided this isn’t something that makes sense for us to keep pursuing.”

During a cold snap at the end of October that dropped nighttime temperatures below freezing, The Moore Wright Group opened a warming shelter at its large warehouse building on Simpson Avenue, serving 10-25 people per night.

“We did background checks, COVID tests, and gave people a warm place to stay in frigid temperatures,” Watford wrote in an email. “It was an extension of our hours for our Recovery Cafe. We gave rules and expectations. It was a good time and people appreciated we offered the extended hours so they could stay alive.”

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or