Counties prepare winter shelter plans amid the homelessness crisis - Salish Current
October 18, 2023
Counties prepare winter shelter plans amid the homelessness crisis
Aria Nguyen

Planners think about emergency cold-weather shelter all year long, as established facilities such as Base Camp in Bellingham are routinely at full capacity even before temperatures fall. (Salish Current photo)

October 18, 2023
Counties prepare winter shelter plans amid the homelessness crisis
Aria Nguyen

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[Updated Oct. 20, 2023]

Homelessness increased by 27% in Whatcom County and 70% in Skagit County, according to the most recent annual Point-in-Time (PIT) counts taken on Jan. 26. 

“This is an ongoing problem,” Teri Bryant, director of the Whatcom Homeless Service Center said. “Every year, there’s just more and more need and pressure. So, it seems like no matter how much we add to the system, the demand consistently exceeds it.”

The survey — required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — is a count conducted in one night giving a snapshot of unsheltered individuals living in places not fit for human habitation and individuals living in emergency shelters or transitional housing.

With winter approaching, counties are working with local organizations to address the needs of vulnerable community members.

Grappling for years

Bryant said the community has grappled with winter sheltering for years.

In the winter of 2019, the City of Bellingham and Whatcom County contracted with the Opportunity Council to provide winter shelter services at the Civic Field locker rooms. This operated from November 2019 to the end of February 2020.

Bryant said there were about 38 cots available at the time — but the space was overflow for women, to give men at the Lighthouse Mission additional room. 

“Boy, that was hard,” Bryant said. “Really hard work.” 

She said the Homeless Service Center focus is more administrative and less involved in providing shelter, but still, they were able to provide those services.

In 2022, Road2Home was asked to host services in the same location. 

However, Bryant said the model has changed.

“Instead of being set days (and) set population to serve, it became ‘we’ll open the shelter when the temperature goes a certain way.’ Well, the weather is not super predictable,” Bryant said. “And so it is tough when the weather is bad to get that word out to everybody who doesn’t have maybe a phone or maybe they’re not even … staying in in the neighborhood (but) they’re out in the woods. So that’s been a challenge to get the word out when we have a sporadically open shelter that’s contingent on weather.”

Winter in Skagit

George Kosovich, public health analyst and manager for the community services division of Skagit County Public Health, said Skagit County has expanded services for the winter months. 

“In the past, we hadn’t had very many cold weather options,” Kosovich said. “One church group was running the cold-weather shelter. This would just activate when it got really cold.” 

Kosovich said the county now partners with agencies to expand their shelter capacity during the colder months. The nonprofit Friendship House expands its capacity seasonally for four months, increasing to another 25 beds.

Friendship House operates several different housing solutions for those who are unhoused. 

“We have a men’s and a women’s and children’s house that are both sober living houses,” executive director of Friendship House Jonathan Kline said. “We can house 23 in the men’s house, 25 in the women’s and children’s.”

Friendship House also runs the Skagit First Step Center in Burlington which is a facility with 45 tiny homes instead of a congregate shelter. 

“Everyone that comes in through there has their own tiny home with a door that they can close and have that sense of security,” Kline said. 

Skagit has been able to use county money to support hotel stays when shelters overflow if individuals are not good candidates for congregate settings, or for families with children, Kosovich added.

Partnerships

This year Skagit County will continue to partner with local organizations to provide shelter services — including Friendship House, Welcome Home Skagit and Family Promise.

Kosovich said the county is constantly looking for ways to support other inclement weather shelters like churches, but the main limiting factors are finding spaces which meet the fire code and have a pastor who is willing and able to host a cold-weather shelter.

“So, we host open houses and information sessions, recruit volunteers, and do a lot of outreach to churches to try and attract cold-weather shelter hosts,” he said.

As many sources of COVID relief funding come to an end, there’s been a decrease in shelter options, Kosovich said. The East County shelter will not be open, mainly due to issues of funding.

He said Washington state did provide some backfill funding but that the county is back to their regular consolidated homeless grant funding — half as much as what was provided during the pandemic. Kosovich noted that much of the relief funds were spent on hotel stays and moving individuals into permanent housing. 

Whatcom in the cold

In Whatcom County, Marie Duckworth, communications specialist for Whatcom County Health and Community Services, said in an email that a significant amount of planning continues to take place regarding winter shelter plans.

What is known so far is that the City of Bellingham and Whatcom County Health and Community Services are jointly funding a winter shelter which will be managed by a local nonprofit. There will be a nightly capacity shelter in the winter and a severe-weather shelter that will only operate when conditions are deemed fit such as “a forecasted temperature of 28 degrees Fahrenheit or below or two inches of precipitation forecasted or on the ground when the temperature is at or below 32 degrees Fahrenheit,” stated in the email.

Ann Beck, community health and human services supervisor for the Whatcom County Health Department, updated the Whatcom County Council Public Works and Health Committee on Oct. 10 on the winter shelter plans for 2023–2024. 

Two requests for proposals were issued for services outside of Bellingham city limits. Beck said Ferndale Community Services will operate a weather-dependent severe-weather shelter. Last year the organization operated for 31 nights and is looking at holding a capacity of 15 people this year. 

Within Bellingham, planning for services has been more difficult since respondents were reluctant to run a weather-dependent, severe-weather shelter, Beck reported. Two respondents are willing to operate ongoing winter shelters: Road2Home, which operated a severe-weather shelter last year, and the YWCA.

These shelters will not operate 24/7 but on a nightly basis with set schedules for individuals to arrive and receive services. 

There is still no severe-weather shelter operator at the moment, but Whatcom County is looking to rent a space to operate. Beck said they are looking to have a lease signed by Oct. 24. 

“This additional capacity facility will run every night from Dec. 1, 2023, through Feb. 28, 2024. A contract with the nonprofit partner is currently being finalized,” Duckworth wrote. 

Additional details will be available once the contract and facility lease are finalized. 

San Juan County as an organization does not have winter-identified programs, Program Coordinator for San Juan County Kyra Jahanfar said in an email. Climate weather shelters are run on Orcas and San Juan through Community Church and the San Juan Island Shelter operated by United Way, she said. 

Affordable housing focus

Michael Lilliquist, Bellingham City Council president, said moving forward should focus not on shelters, but on affordable housing.

“Shelters nearly perpetuate homelessness,” Lilliquist said. “You stay in a shelter, and then you go out on the street and you’re still homeless; that night you return to the shelter and then you go back on the street the next day and you’re still homeless.”

Lilliquist said the $9 million  [Ed.: Corrected amount.] the City receives annually is dedicated primarily to support housing: affordable housing programs, and housing facilities with slots for those who are homeless on entry.

He also said the city council recently accepted staff recommendations to increase the funding for greater rent support. Another $110,000 was added to cover those at risk of eviction due to severe cost burdens surrounding housing in Bellingham.

“We want them to stay in housing,” he said, emphasizing that severe weather shelters are not his focus. “If you look at the countywide plan to end homelessness, it talks very little about shelter because shelter doesn’t end homelessness: housing does.”

— Reported by Aria Nguyen

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