Winter shelters help the unhoused while reckoning with capacity limits - Salish Current
January 10, 2024
Winter shelters help the unhoused while reckoning with capacity limits
Matt Benoit

Snowy weather and below-freezing temperatures prompt the opening of local severe-weather shelters for unhoused people. Capacity for both adults and minors at Whatcom and Skagit shelters such as Base Camp in downtown Bellingham’s Public Market building is one of the questions planners address. (Kai Uyehara / Salish Current photo ©)

January 10, 2024
Winter shelters help the unhoused while reckoning with capacity limits
Matt Benoit


After some areas of Western Washington saw their warmest Decembers ever, the first month of 2024 is ready to give many a taste of true winter weather. 

While snow, ice and bone-chilling temperatures can be dangerous for anyone, they are potentially fatal for those experiencing homelessness. As Salish Current documented in October, local municipalities are working with homelessness organizations to ensure that as many unhoused people as possible find shelter from winter weather. 

In Whatcom County, unhoused residents have four winter shelter options: the Lighthouse Mission’s Base Camp in downtown Bellingham, with daily capacity for 200 people; Road2Home’s winter shelter at Civic Field, operating nightly with room for 45 people; Ferndale Community Service’s severe-weather shelter, with space for 15 people; and Bellingham’s severe-weather shelter, with capacity for up to 45 people. 

The latter, located at 810 North State Street, was approved in late October after the Whatcom County Council approved a lease with State Street Creamery, LLC. The temporary shelter is housed in a vacant building scheduled for demolition later in the year to make way for a proposed multifamily housing project. 

The Bellingham severe weather shelter on State Street is funded solely by the county and operated by Whatcom County Health and Community Services with American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money. [Ed.: Funder details corrected Jan. 11, 2023.] It was supposed to be operated through a contract with a local nonprofit. However, no organizations responded to a request for proposals to operate the shelter, leaving the WCHCS to complete the task itself. 

The shelter — open to both individuals and families — is only open when overnight low temperatures are forecast to reach 28 degrees Fahrenheit or below, or if there are at least two inches of snow forecast or on the ground when the temperature is to reach 32 degrees or colder. Wind chill factors are also considered. 

Those thresholds must be met based on weather data collected from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Bellingham airport weather station, and a final decision on shelter openings is left to the county’s health and community services director. 

Heather McGuinness, the department’s partnerships and strategy supervisor, said that the shelter had only been open three nights through Dec. 28. As of Jan. 9, the overnight low temperature at the airport had reached 28 degrees only one additional time. 

According to the county’s website for winter shelters, both Bellingham and Ferndale’s severe-weather shelters are scheduled to be open nightly from Jan. 10 through Jan. 14. In addition, these two shelters will remain open during the day as a continuation of services for guests who stayed the previous night beginning at 5 p.m. on Jan. 11. 

Is it enough?

Both facilities, the county website said, are expected to be completely full. 

The large and ever-increasing unhoused population of Whatcom County raises the issue of whether there is enough capacity to keep everyone warm who wants to be sheltered. 

In the case of Bellingham’s current severe-weather shelter, the answer so far is “yes.” Over the three nights the shelter was activated through Dec. 28, a nightly average of 32 people stayed at the facility, McGuiness said. Likewise, the shelter also has sufficient staff and volunteers, she added. 

At Lighthouse Mission’s Base Camp, the answer is less certain. 

Kellie-Anne Reichmann, director of crisis and outreach services, said that while numbers generally increased at Base Camp during past winters, the shelter now regularly remains near or at capacity during all four seasons.

Base Camp also has 20 additional ICE (In Case of Emergency) beds that can be set up for emergency weather events, crises, or if vulnerable persons need help after the shelter hits capacity for the night, Reichmann said. 

She anticipates Base Camp will reach full capacity during the impending cold spell. When that happens, staff will likely do what they’ve done in the past: provide transportation to other shelters that still have capacity. 

Road2Home’s Civic Field shelter — open every night from 7 p.m. to 8 a.m. on a first-come, first-served basis — has been open since Dec. 1. The shelter offers snacks, beds and showers, as well as access to additional community resources. 

Ashley Buerger, Road2Home’s executive director, said there have been numerous nights where staff members have turned people away because the shelter has reached capacity.

“Soul-crushing”: Turning people away when the winter shelter at Civic Field in Bellingham has already met its 45-guest per night capacity is a hard reality some nights for Road2Home staff. (Road2Home courtesy photo)

“It is really difficult, and even potentially traumatizing, to be turned away when you’re seeking shelter and resources, and you’re being told that there aren’t any options,” she said. 

It’s possible that some people are not attempting to even seek shelter, she added, either because they don’t want to or because they know it’s a competitive situation, especially if they’ve already been turned away before. 

This is a concern Reichmann also acknowledges, which is why Base Camp staff will often provide outreach when possible, driving a van around to offer those still on a street a ride to shelter. Those people are often inclined to accept this offer when it comes directly to them, she said. 

Currently, on nights when severe-weather shelters are open and Base Camp is at capacity, the Civic Field shelter is the last stop for most people, Buerger said. If Civic is also full, the only thing they can do is offer a person food or a hot beverage before sending them on their way.

“It’s hard turning people away,” she said. “Not being able to offer more is hard on the staff. It’s pretty soul-crushing.”

Few options for teens

While the Civic Field shelter and Base Camp both take adults, and the latter also allows families, neither can take unaccompanied minors. They are typically referred to Northwest Youth Services, which operates an emergency housing program called the PAD (Positive Adolescent Development) for minors aged 13 to 17. 

“It’s a demographic that doesn’t have a lot of options right now, either,” Buerger said. 

The Feb. 29 seasonal closure of the Civic Field shelter could also pose challenges if a freak snow or cold event strikes the area in early March. 

Unless such an event were actively hitting during the closure date, Buerger said, the shelter would still close Feb. 29, and clients would be referred to the city’s severe-weather shelter because Road2Home’s contract with the city would have expired and because it would be difficult to keep temporary staff on-call. 

If the severe-weather shelter was not operating by that time, the demand would likely fall solely on Base Camp.  

Skagit shelter

In Skagit County, a number of temporary cold-weather shelters and warming centers will be open between Jan. 10 and 17.

In Mount Vernon, these include the city’s library, Faith Community Fellowship and Welcome Home Skagit Day Center at Salem Lutheran Church. Public libraries in Burlington, Anacortes, La Conner, Sedro-Woolley and Concrete are also places of shelter, as are the latter’s community center. 

Mount Baker Presbyterian Church will also offer food, showers and laundry service from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. between the evening of Jan. 11 and the morning of Jan. 15. 

These join the two seven-night-a-week seasonal shelters open through mid-March. The first, Skagit First Step Center, is an adult-only shelter run by Burlington’s Friendship House. The second, Family Promise of Skagit Valley, provides shelter for pregnant women and parenting families. 

Expanding capacity

This September, the Lighthouse Mission’s new facility is scheduled to open in Old Town on the former location of the organization’s drop-in center. 

It will increase both overall capacity and severe-weather capacity, Reichmann said, with 300 standard capacity beds and another 100 for extreme weather. In total, this is a 200-bed increase from what Base Camp — which will close in July — offers now. 

In the meantime, Base Camp’s front desk is open during the day, offering hand warmers, blankets, hats and mittens to those who need them, regardless of whether they can or want to stay at Base Camp, Reichmann said. Community members are always encouraged to donate these items, she added.

At the Civic Field shelter, Buerger said the facility is operating with more staff, and more depth, than last year. They’ve added a van driver, resource navigator and behavioral health specialists who are present seven days a week. 

“We have seen how essential they have been to our operation this season,” she said.

The shelter they’ve set up is clearly helping the unhoused by keeping them warm and dry, helping them get into substance abuse treatment and securing motel stays through Opportunity Council. However, Buerger said, having more beds would go a long way towards meeting a need that only seems to be increasing each time the mercury dips.  

“Winter is hard for our community,” she said. “The reality of any resource scarcity is the ethical decision-making around how it’s utilized and how it’s accessed. And while there is no perfect picture, I think it’s important that we are thinking about how we treat folks who are suffering and experiencing homelessness and trauma.”

If you are concerned about the health and/or safety of someone sleeping outdoors in Whatcom County during cold weather, contact the Opportunity Council’s Homeless Outreach Team at 360.312.3717.

— Reported by Matt Benoit


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