Homelessness response groups brace for frigid conditions

Warming shelters open, cold weather survival items provided in preparation

Grays Harbor has slipped into its harshest weather to date in 2024, with temperatures dropping below freezing — coupled with a cutting wind chill — and not expected to relent until early next week, while a blanket of snow could drape the east and central parts of the county, possibly covering the coast.

Nonprofit groups and government agencies responding to homelessness braced for that forecast earlier this week by collecting and distributing survival items — blankets, coats, tarps and tents — and opening temporary warming shelters for people to escape the cold.

While the 2023-2024 season has been relatively mild, those efforts are more prevalent this year as the county works through the first winter in several years without a nightly congregate shelter funded through Grays Harbor County.

Grays Harbor County Public Health officials earlier this week worked to coordinate with service providers as cold weather approached. Thursday’s forecast showed nightime temps would fall into the low 20s and hang there before gradually rising to a Jan. 17 high of 46 degrees.

A temporary warming shelter opened in Aberdeen Thursday night under operation of The Moore Wright Group, a nonprofit that works on housing issues. Executive Director Tanikka Watford said in a phone call on Thursday that about 20 cots would be available at its warehouse building on Simpson Avenue from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. each night through Monday.

The group often opens its headquarters as a shelter during emergencies, screening guests with a criminal background check and a COVID test. Watford said people with past sexual offenses or violent crimes aren’t allowed in.

Full meals won’t be provided, Watford said, but she hoped people could find a meal at the Union Gospel Mission, 405 East Heron St. In Aberdeen. The mission is the only congregate shelter operating on a nightly basis in Grays Harbor County this winter. It requires religious participation for overnight stays and adherence to stricter rules than other low-barrier shelters.

Gospel Mission Executive Director Charley Capoeman said in a phone call on Thursday the 40-bed men’s shelter downtown was currently hosting 18 overnight guests, although he expected that number to rise during the cold snap. He said staff prepared extra blankets and extended hours of operation at its day room.

“We knew it was coming,” Capoeman said of the weather. “We think we’re prepared for the people that come here.”

The mission also has shelter beds for women and children at 513 North G Street in Aberdeen.

Despite the group’s past interest, The Moore Wright Group did not apply this winter to host a shelter through Grays Harbor County’s cold weather shelter program, which provides funding for emergency shelters. After public pushback and complications surrounding shelters in multiple cities last season, the county health department didn’t receive a response from any groups or agencies to provide shelter services after issuing a request for proposals in the fall.

County commissioners instead allocated homeless funding to a hotel voucher program operated by Coastal Community Action Program, and to Chaplains on the Harbor, a nonprofit headquartered in Westport.

The money allowed Chaplains to expand its daytime shelter services to five days per week at a church building in Westport where it provided a nightly cold weather shelter last year. It also allowed the group to expand street outreach to smaller towns and bump up deliveries of blankets, coats and tents to homeless communities.

CCAP and another group also procured survival items and distributed them to homeless camps before the cold snap.

CCAP recently collaborated with Chaplains to bring mobile coordinated entry services to the church’s day center and Westport in an attempt to connect more people to shelter or transitional housing. Through coordinated entry, unhoused people could potentially secure a hotel room through a voucher program the county expanded funding for in the fall. That program, which prioritizes families or vulnerable, medically fragile adults, has hovered at or near capacity and is currently serving 32 households, according to program director Kimberly Stoll-French.

As cold weather approached, Chaplains “put out the plea for donations of blankets coats and survival gear,” said Barba Weza, the group’s executive director.

Weza said Amazing Grace Lutheran Church responded by organizing a propane drive to help people fuel their stoves for warmth.

In a similar effort, Destination Hope and Recovery, a human services group in Aberdeen, organized a clothing drive earlier this winter and has been distributing items to people on the streets near their offices in downtown Aberdeen.

“I’m very worried about people and their exposure,” Weza said. “This could potentially affect the whole city or county.”

Elma’s Police Chief Susan Shultz saw the weather forecast earlier this week and, after talking with city officials, decided to open the Elma Senior Center, 100 Main St., as a warming shelter from Friday through Monday nights, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Shultz said the city opens the shelter during cold weather and stations police officers there who monitor the building while volunteers from the Elma Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints run the shelter.

Shultz said shelter usually sees minimal use.

On the other side of the county, in Taholah, the Quinault Indian Nation Emergency Management announced a shelter at the town’s Generations Building, 1655 Kla-Ook-Wa Dr. The shelter is open Thursday through Saturday nights, from 5:30 p.m to 7 a.m.

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or clayton.franke@thedailyworld.com.