Those who are homeless as the weather turns cold and wet this year confront a tough choice. Staying outside is dangerous — already this year; a man in his 70s died of hypothermia — but seeking shelter means risking exposure to a potentially deadly virus.
As the pandemic’s death toll rises, the organizations that form a patchwork shelter system in Clark County have added capacity and adopted extensive precautions in an effort to keep people safe from both the elements and COVID-19.
“The challenge this year is not about just having the bed space. It’s about having adequate space for everyone to social distance,” said Kate Budd, executive director of Council for the Homeless, which leads a winter shelter task force.
Thanks in large part to federal money earmarked for coronavirus response, the county has more shelter beds than ever — but it’s still not enough to help everyone who is living outside, advocates say.
Clark County’s 2020 census of the homeless population counted 516 people living outside during a single day in January, a low estimate given that severe-weather shelters — which open during ice, snow or freezing temperatures — served 715 adults and 16 children last winter.
While it’s hard to tally how many emergency shelter beds are available on a given winter night, Budd estimated there are 350 now with more opening later this month. When severe weather hits, dozens more beds may open as facilities around Clark County step forward to help. Yet the shelters are hindered by a pandemic that demands they drastically change how they operate.
Take Winter Hospitality Overflow, also known as WHO, a mainstay of the winter shelter system. Now in its 18th season, WHO serves women and families at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Orchards and men at St. Paul Lutheran Church in downtown Vancouver. For many guests, the church becomes their home for the season.
St. Andrew would normally be bustling with volunteers situating guests as they arrive. Not this year. Silence and the odor of cleaning chemicals greeted guests at 6:30 p.m. Monday, the second night of the seasonal shelter. As one of many precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the shelter turned away volunteers this year. Instead, a few Share employees are running the overnight shelter.
As Sharon Toliver checked in guests for the night, she asked whether they had any coughing, shortness of breath or contact with anyone who has had COVID-19. Guests are expected to wear a face mask unless they’re eating, sleeping, showering or smoking outside.
Merissa Morris, 26, doesn’t mind following the rules so she can stay at St. Andrew with her 6-year-old son, Aaron.
“They try to make sure you’re not sick,” she said.
Janitorial staff clean the space daily. Volunteers drop off hot meals that staff serve in the dining room, which has one entrance and one exit. Hand sanitizer and air purifiers sit in strategic spots around the building. Curtains cordon off sleeping areas, another precaution against the novel coronavirus, which spreads when people exhale virus-containing droplets.
Diana Finn, 59, sees the contrast between now and her stay at St. Andrew a few years ago. Finn noticed, for instance, that she didn’t have to put her sleeping mat away in the morning because the gym where she sleeps isn’t being used during the day. And that the church is holding Sunday services on YouTube.
“Things are definitely different, but not the way they treat us,” Finn said. “We are treated with the utmost respect.”
While eating dinner, Finn and Martina Maina, 52, both said it was easier than expected to get a spot at the shelter.
“I got in the first night I called,” said Maina, who previously spent a few nights in her car. “This is very stabilizing for me and very welcoming.”
The church has room for 35, which is 15 fewer than last winter. About a dozen people stayed on Monday night, when the skies were clear and the low temperature was 44 degrees. Staff expect the shelter to fill up as the weather worsens. Last year, WHO had an average occupancy rate of 93 percent and served 315 people at its two locations.
WHO shelters are open every night between Nov. 1 and the end of March — except last winter when the pandemic interrupted that schedule. The shelter remained open until June using Share staff instead of volunteers. The Rev. Cindy Muse, pastor at St. Andrew, said those months were a sort of trial run for how the shelter is running now. Share ran its year-round family shelters without a coronavirus outbreak and brought what it learned to WHO, Muse said. This made St. Andrew feel more comfortable and confident as the WHO season approached.
A room at St. Andrew is set aside to isolate any guests who may have symptoms of the virus.
St. Paul, which is run by Outsiders Inn, houses 25 to 27 men and added an extra room to help with social distancing. Its COVID-19 protocol is similar to St. Andrew’s, including screenings, mandatory masks and space dividers.
“We’re doing everything possible to keep everybody safe,” said Adam Kravitz, executive director at Outsiders Inn.
Operating with staff instead of volunteers costs more, but WHO has raised money from donations and government grants to help pay for those added expenses.
The city of Vancouver pumped up its financial support of the emergency shelter system using a combination of CARES Act and Community Development Block Grant dollars (some earmarked specifically for coronavirus response). Vancouver gave WHO $155,000. In addition, Vancouver paid for the first sanctioned encampment at Living Hope Church between April and September as well as the Safe Parking Zone at the Evergreen Transit Center, underwrote $50,000 worth of hotel stays, and gave $80,000 to expand the SafePark program for people staying in their vehicles in church parking lots.
The county oversees most of the money addressing homelessness. This fiscal year, through a combination of funding sources, Clark County allocated $238,000 toward vouchers that pay for motel stays; $218,000 toward the Women’s Housing and Transition shelter at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church; $116,000 for planning and coordination; $55,000 toward severe weather shelter operating costs; $150,000 toward hygiene supplies and staffing costs at shelters and another $20,000 toward shelter supplies.
This is in addition to the 116-room shelter at an east Vancouver motel that the county opened in April. At the former Motel 6, those who may have been exposed to COVID-19 quarantine in one building. A second building shelters elderly people or those who have health problems that make them particularly vulnerable to the virus; as of Wednesday, it was sheltering 97 people.
The facility was supposed to close in June, but remains open and there’s enough money to run it through the end of the year, said Michael Torres, program manager with Clark County Community Services. In mid-December, the county expects to shut down the shelter, make minor repairs and then turn the buildings back over to the motel owner.
Torres said case management teams are combing through the list of guests to figure out how to help people transition into housing or another shelter. Torres said it’ll be a while before he knows how many people secure housing after leaving Motel 6, but the “success” rate for shelters in Washington is 43 percent, according to the state Department of Commerce.
“We are pretty mindful about the necessity to maintain and whenever possible increase shelter capacity in the community,” he said.
A new option begins mid-November that uses a few places to keep up to 15 people inside seven nights a week. Immanuel and Beautiful Savior Lutheran churches will open for a combined six nights each week with the Council for the Homeless providing guests one night in a motel, creating a continuous seven-night shelter. The churches opened their buildings last winter for five nights each week. Outsiders Inn will staff the shelter serving families and couples, Kravitz said.
The shelter system is piecemeal, requiring coordination among various groups, and its capacity to expand is limited by both resources and a pandemic that discourages group gatherings.
“It seems like a lot of moving pieces, but this is a tribute to collaboration,” Kravitz said. “This is exactly what we need to respond to this issue.”
Anyone seeking shelter is asked to call the Housing Hotline to do a screening and learn what’s available.