Location is biggest hurdle as county moves to provide winter homeless shelters

Shelter providers required to seek city approval before proposing shelter site

With summer’s end in sight and winter several months away, Grays Harbor County Board of Commissioners circled back to discussions about temporary winter homeless shelters last week, with hopes new guidelines will streamline the process and avoid complications that delayed, and ultimately quashed, some shelter services last year.

Grays Harbor County Public Health staff are currently drafting an application request that will, among other things, require shelter providers to receive letters of support from relevant city governments where they plan to operate shelters.

“The challenge has crystallized around siting: The ‘where’ of a shelter — it’s become more and more apparent — is really the key and priority element for future shelter programming,” said Cassie Lentz, Healthy Places manager for public health.

During a workshop on Aug. 15, Lentz presented commissioners with information about last year’s shelter operations, as well as funding opportunities and next steps for the coming season.

Commissioners have not taken official action on shelters for the upcoming season, but directed staff to seek providers with a goal to have services available by November. That would require providers to submit applications, along with proposed sites and approval from relevant cities, by October, according to a timeline presented by Lentz last week. Public health’s request for proposals has not yet been released.

The cold weather shelter program first began in 2017, and the county has requested winter shelter services from providers consistently since the 2019-2020 season.

The county requested shelter providers last fall, but plans for a shelter in Aberdeen fell through when, after a contract was already signed with nonprofit Chaplains on the Harbor, the city of Aberdeen formally opposed a temporary shelter within city limits. That shelter effort was later abandoned facing legal and code issues, as well as further public opposition, after three months of searching for an alternate site.

“The more specific we can be with providers about what we will accept — and what we will not — in a site will be helpful,” Lentz told commissioners last week.

Commissioner Kevin Pine, who represents District 2 including Aberdeen and Westport, advocated for the requirement that city approval be a requirement for cold weather shelters.

“The laws and rules say we don’t have to get city approval to put something in,” he said. “But to be a good neighbor — it’s a collaborative effort — I would disagree with just jamming something through and saying ‘you’re gonna do this.’”

Aberdeen Mayor Pete Schave told The Daily World on Wednesday that approval of a cold weather shelter would be up to a vote of the city council. Last fall, Schave sent a letter to county commissioners voicing opposition to a cold weather shelter in Aberdeen, citing the “destructive” conditions of a 2021 shelter to the downtown business district. The city council later backed his action with an 8-3 vote to reject the shelter.

The only shelter to start on time was a 15-bed shelter run by Chaplains on the Harbor in Westport, which saw significantly more pressure than it had in the past, serving 136 “unduplicated” clients last winter compared to 82 the year before, according to data presented by Lentz last week.

Of the clients served last winter, 43 were entered into coordinated housing resources, and six worked with Chaplains to secure permanent housing. “Interactions with clients were very fruitful and facilitated exits to programs and resources available,” according to Lentz’s report.

When Chaplains requested to expand the shelter operation by 10 beds last winter, public pushback at a city council meeting led the council to oppose the expansion.

Since then, the city has also drafted and held public hearings on new public safety rules for temporary homeless shelters, which include restrictions like identification and background check requirements that would, according to Chaplains on the Harbor Executive Director Barbra Weza, act as barriers both to homeless people using the shelter and the nonprofit running it.

According to Lentz, the Westport Police Department said it “did not have an increase in crime stats with regards to any activity at the shelter,” but did observe an increase of people arriving in Westport to use the shelter last winter. Lentz said data recorded by Chaplains shows 22 of the 136 individuals who used the shelter identified as Westport residents, and the rest came from outside the Westport area.

The city of Westport is set to hold another public hearing on the shelter rules later this month. Weza told The Daily World earlier this month Chaplains has not yet decided if it will apply to run the Westport shelter again this year.

In the same building, Chaplains currently runs a “day center” that provides services like showers, meals and connection to resources through a $266,000 contract with Grays Harbor County, funded by grants.

That money, plus $285,000 for a Coastal Community Action Program to provide temporary housing with hotel and motel vouchers, has already been allocated by the county. Another $530,000 of the county’s homeless housing fund, including $370,000 from annual document recording fees, has yet to be allocated for shelter services.

The county had $590,000 earmarked for shelter services last season and ended up with money leftover when only the Westport shelter opened its doors. Lentz said the scope of services of new applications will determine how quickly the money might be spent.

Cold weather shelters typically run Nov. 1 through March 31.

Permanent shelter

Lentz also informed commissioners last week about a larger housing funding source: the state Department of Commerce’s Housing Trust Fund.

Lentz said Commerce awards grants to capital projects including “acquisition, rehab or construction of homeless shelters,” with up to $5 million per project.

That could include a permanent homeless shelter in Grays Harbor County. For months, Commissioner Pine and Mayor Schave have said the search is ongoing for a permanent shelter site but have declined to disclose possible locations.

In an interview Tuesday morning, Schave said he and Pine “have found a location that’s about as perfect as you can get,” adding, “nothing is perfect.” He said the shelter site is on unincorporated Grays Harbor County land but is “as close as you can get to Aberdeen.”

Pine could not be reached for comment Tuesday. County commissioners did not direct public health to apply for the Commerce grant, which has a Sept. 18 deadline, Lentz said.

Given the state agency’s review process, Lentz guessed it would likely be too short of a timeline to use the grant to provide shelter this winter.

“We definitely need to look long term, but I think in the now, we need a seasonal shelter,” said District 3 Commissioner Vickie Raines last week.

Following a regular meeting Aug. 22, commissioners and legal staff met for a 20-minute executive session to discuss matters related to the acquisition of real estate, at the request of Commissioner Pine.

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