The Moore Wright Group opens doors during cold snap

Warming shelter provides meals, cots to homeless individuals

Lester Vitalis’ feet were covered in wool socks and only a few inches away from a space heater Tuesday evening, but they were still so cold he said he could barely feel the heat.

“It’s not frostbite, but it’s cold,” Vitalis said.

Vitalis slept at The Moore Wright Group’s emergency warming shelter in the old Swanson’s building on Simpson Avenue in Aberdeen Tuesday evening. The previous night he slept in a garage, where he would normally burn a candle for warmth, but he didn’t have a lighter.

Following Feb. 21, temperatures would drop below freezing four out of the next seven nights, and wind chill would push temperatures as low as 13 degrees in the early morning of Feb. 24.

“It’s really been cold like this for a while,” Vitalis said Tuesday night. “It’s f———- frigid out.”

Tanikka Watford saw that frigid forecast last week, which included snowstorms. Watford made the decision to open a temporary overnight warming shelter Feb. 23 for people who would instead be spending the night outside.

Watford is the executive director of The Moore Wright Group, a nonprofit that owns the old Swanson’s building at 1401 Simpson Ave.

The group bought the 44,000-square-foot warehouse-style building last spring, and it has since functioned as a home base and donation center for the group’s many projects aimed at ending cycles of poverty and abuse.

But it hadn’t yet functioned as a shelter, meaning Watford and staff had to take quick action to convert a small section on the east side of the building — where the group normally hosts a Recovery Cafe, a daytime service for people dealing with homelessness, mental health and addiction challenges — into a sleeping area.

The shelter operated there every night except two since last Thursday, with doors opening at 8 p.m. and the final guests being allowed in before the doors close at 9 p.m. and reopen at 8 a.m. the next morning. Anyone was welcome, Watford said, and guests — 8 to 12 per night on average — received a warm meal, a cot and blankets, among other cold weather survival items and hygiene kits.

An “outpour” of effort from staff and support from the community has been essential to the shelter’s operation, Watford said.

“People have just shown up, shown out, and done amazing things,” Watford said. “I’m just grateful for all of them and their hearts.”

“(Staff) have stepped up in a big way volunteering to work long hours, nights and early mornings to make sure our community members are warm though this weather,” The Moore Wright Group posted on its Facebook page Monday.

The group has rotated between nine staff, with two on hand each night. Watford said staff worked through the weekend to keep the shelter open. The shelter was closed Monday night and again Wednesday to give staff nights off.

Community donations fulfilled some of the duties when staff were stretched thin, Watford said. The shelter operation has relied on a slew of hot food donations. Others have volunteered their time to help with tasks around the shelter. Guests had to take a COVID test upon entry, as well as pass a basic background check, a search for recent violent criminal charges. Weapons and drugs were banned from the shelter, Watford said.

Staff have also made an effort to connect guests with other services, Watford said.

”We’re trying to figure out where the needs are,” Watford said. “Some people are ready for housing and some people might need some other supportive services to get them ready for housing or other places.”

Watford said one 66-year-old man entered the shelter recently who had scars and lacerations and “could not walk or take care of himself.” The Moore Wright Group was able to connect him with inpatient care.

“There’s no way he could’ve stayed outside, he would’ve froze to death,” Watford said.

Multiple shelter guests said Tuesday night they previously sought shelter services at the 15-bed cold weather shelter in Westport, which is currently being operated by Chaplains on the Harbor and funded through a contract with Grays Harbor County.

But that shelter has been the only low-barrier option in the county’s cold weather shelter program. The program uses funds from federal and state grants to contract with providers who operate temporary shelter services from Nov. 1 to March 31, the cold weather season.

But shelter proposals have faced a series of setbacks.

The Grays Harbor County Board of Commissioners approved a 10-bed expansion for the Westport shelter in January, but public pushback at Westport city meetings thwarted the effort.

An effort by Chaplains to provide a near-Aberdeen shelter was abandoned in January after an identified site wasn’t up to code.

In a 2022 letter, Aberdeen Mayor Pete Schave also asked county commissioners to not allow a cold weather shelter in Aberdeen this season, a request later affirmed by the Aberdeen City Council.

The Moore Wright Group’s current shelter at the old Swanson’s building is not funded through the county’s cold weather shelter program, although The Moore Wright Group did apply for a cold weather shelter contract last fall at a separate site. That shelter, which would’ve provided temporary housing for families in a house on Pacific Avenue, also ran into complications with city code.

According to Cassie Lentz, Healthy Places manager for Grays Harbor County Public Health, the shelter still has a chance to open for the rest of the cold weather season, but still needs to comply with city code enforcement and fire marshal inspection, as well as provide policies and procedures, an intake form, and staff Homeless Management Information Systems training confirmation.

Some homeless people in Aberdeen have accessed the Westport shelter using bus routes, but the temporary shelter at the old Swanson’s building provided easier access, according to Aaron Burckhard, who stayed at The Moore Wright Group shelter Tuesday night.

“I usually stay in the one out in Westport, but if there’s one in Aberdeen I’m going to stay in Aberdeen,” Burckhard said.

“It’s either here or I’m going to be outside. Nobody should be out in this stuff,” Burckhard said of the cold.

Vitalis also said he had been frequenting the Westport shelter until The Moore Wright Group opened its doors. He said a recent foot injury has limited his mobility.

Watford said the emergency shelter wouldn’t be open March 1 to allow staff to rest, and wasn’t sure whether the shelter would continue to operate further.

“I’ve been to the Westport (shelter) and I’ve been here,” Vitalis said. “They need one in Aberdeen, they need a warming center. You shouldn’t have to go all the way to Westport.”

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or