When a fire ripped through the Gorge last summer, Washougal sprang into action. The community center opened as an evacuation site and residents quickly pulled together emergency supplies. Fast-forward to winter, and the small city is preparing for the worst in a different way.
Temperatures dropping below 30 degrees, or freezing rain or snow, would prompt the opening of an emergency severe-weather shelter at the Washougal Community Center.
It’s the only severe-weather shelter among Clark County’s small cities, and it’s the only shelter in the county that uses a city-owned building.
“Instead of waiting for it to become a problem, let’s be proactive,” said the Rev. Bob Barber, pastor at St. Matthew Lutheran Church.
Just like the Archer Mountain Fire was a communitywide concern, Barber said, homelessness concerns the whole community. People experiencing homelessness are not outsiders and should be shown care and compassion, he said.
Barber is also chair of Refuel Washougal, which puts on a free meal every Friday evening at the community center that draws about 65 people every week. He said many homeless people are already familiar with the community center because of Refuel and may be more willing to stay at a public building as opposed to a church. Refuel would supply and organize volunteers for the shelter. Many have already gone through volunteer training with the Council for the Homeless. Volunteer handbooks were recently finished.
Rose Jewell, assistant to Washougal’s mayor and city administrator, said the fire marshal gave them the go-ahead last week to use the community center. The community center was not built for overnight guests and required some improvements, including additional smoke detectors.
Even if the rest of winter continues to be mild, the overnight shelter will still open sometime for a trial run, she said. Not to mention, everything will be organized for next winter.
“We’re a small community. When we pool together we can accomplish something,” Jewell said.
It’ll be a walk-in shelter, meaning that people don’t have to sign up in advance to stay there. Barber estimates there are about 30 to 40 people in the Washougal area needing shelter. Pets would be allowed, too, under certain conditions.
“We don’t want someone choosing to stay outside because of their pet,” Barber said. “We want to just simply provide a safe place.”
When severe weather activates the shelter, its hours will be 6 p.m. to 7 a.m., and the building could host about 20 people with space to store their belongings in totes. After the shelter closes, people could walk about two blocks up the street to the Salvation Army, which would operate a daytime shelter. The nonprofit has shower and laundry facilities.