Transcript: update from the Whatcom County Health Department on severe weather shelter plans / Noisy Waters Northwest

Click the still frame of a video recording of the 09/27/22 Whatcom County Council Committee of the Whole meeting to access the recording via the Whatcom County website

October 4, 2023 Dena Jensen

At Whatcom County Council’s September 27, 2022 Committee of the Whole Meeting, committee members received an update on severe weather shelter plans for the upcoming cold weather season from the Whatcom County Health Department’s Human Services Manager, Ann Beck. I am providing a written transcript of that presentation in this blog post.

From my perspective, the biggest difference in this year’s options for severe weather shelter, compared to the past few years, is that the County is contracting with a service provider, Road2Home, prior to the cold weather season, to operate and run the shelter. The past couple years, such sheltering was completely on the fly. And over the last four years the County has not officially contracted such services at all, but during a couple winters relied on volunteer efforts of faith and other community organizations.

At last week’s meeting, the Health Department was able to present to Committee of the Whole members some details about the contract, their plans and a location for providing the shelter, along with details about how they will be communicating information to community members about how to access the shelter.

There will be a night-time shelter provided through Whatcom County, and a day-time warming shelter provided through the City of Bellingham. And while there is at this point, fortunately, an organized approach and the use of a service provider who has engaged in effectively gathering and providing resources and caring for community members in crisis, there doesn’t seem to be much that indicates that any more people on any more dates will be served by the planned severe weather shelters this year than in years past. Plus, community members in crisis will still not be able to rely on the shelter to be open for a predictable number of days. In other words, if we find true progress is achieved this season, it appears it will be of a very modest and inadequate variety unless community members can find ways to motivate officials to improve on current plans.

Here is a list of some key details from the presentation about the County’s severe weather shelter for the upcoming cold weather season:

  • The shelter will be a congregate shelter operated by Road2Home and will serve around 30 individuals
  • The shelter location will be Bellingham’s Civic Field locker room, which has been used previously for a COVID Isolation and Quarantine Facility, and prior to that for Lighthouse Mission winter shelter overflow
  • The capacity at Base Camp and the overflow shelter run by Christ the King Community Church will not be a determinant as to whether the severe weather shelter is opened or not
  • As in years past, there is still a 28 degree temperature threshold, and a few other weather factors that need to be present before the severe weather shelter will be activated. According to a housing specialist with the Health Department back in April of this year, the 28 degree temperature was picked to provide a means to restrict the shelter from having to be operated for more than about 8 days for the entire cold weather season
  • There will be 24 to 48 hours notice of the opening and operating of the shelter. Other than this short notice there will not be a way for community members to be assured of severe weather shelter access for a given period of time
  • Information related to the opening and accessing of the shelter will be available through the night-by-night shelter hotline (360-788-7983), via social media, on the Whatcom County website, and via flyers to be passed out by homeless outreach staff and first responders
  • The County is imminently entering into a contract with Road2Home, which should help ensure that there is time for the service provider to identify volunteers, perform training sessions, and make other advance preparations ahead of emergency weather conditions
  • The County has not yet made plans to provide severe weather shelter operations and services for other weather conditions such as severe smoke or severe heat

Here is a link to a recording of the September 27, 2022 Whatcom County Council Committee of the Whole meeting which includes the presentation that the transcription below was prepared from:

Update from the Health Department on severe weather shelter plans:

Whatcom County Health Department Human Services Manager Ann Beck: You know it is the end of September and we are ahead of the game as far as sheltering goes – severe weather sheltering goes for the winter months. The past few months, or the past few years have been very challenging. COVID certainly did not help that situation.

But this year, after last season we had to open a shelter kind of last minute, and it was staffed by county employees and it was not, by any means, the way we want to do things. So we, this year decided we were gonna try to find a contractor who was willing to operate a shelter during severe weather and that we would pay them for the service and try to make this a much smoother winter season.

So in late June of this year, a severe weather shelter facility operator RFP was sent out to the social service partners throughout Whatcom County, and about a month later the RFP closed. We received no responses. Nobody applied for it. And that was just, you know, a bit of a gut punch because it was very scary that we weren’t going to have that capacity. And it speaks to the continued challenge of shortage of community service providers that we are experiencing here.

We did, however, reach out to Road2Home, who operated – who helped operate our IQF [Isolation Quarantine Facility] facility to see if they might be interested. And thank goodness, they agreed to partner with the County to operate an overnight severe weather shelter facility.

We are really, really grateful for that. We are – while there is some direct service providing happening here in the Health Department, it’s not something that my team does on a regular basis. Last year we had some environmental health staff that were taking overnight shifts at the shelter. And, you know, people worked early morning shifts. Erika and myself  were there some mornings. So it was – I was grateful that this go-round, we’re gonna have somebody to be able to offer that. 

The facility will be opening based on the guiding assumptions that were established in 2019. I believe those were included in your packets. So these are the same ones, that when that Homeless Strategies Workgroup came together so many years ago now – it seems like ages ago, and so much has happened since then – but some guiding assumptions were decided, like this is what we’re gonna use, because the year prior, there was a lot of, like: which weather app should we use? – what’s the temperature? 

So we wanted to bring people together and say, this is what we and the whole community can say is a go. So those guiding assumptions include things like the temperature threshold. They include – previously it was also based on capacity. We removed that piece of it. 

So what’s happening is during the winter season, which can start at this point, late October sometimes, we’re watching the weather through that NOAA website, because that’s the source that we said we were gonna use. And we are keeping our eyes open 24-48 hours in advance to see what the weather’s looking like. And we’re using those temperature thresholds to decide whether or not to call for the shelter to be operated. 

So if there is an opening that’s gonna happen, we’re gonna go through the proper channels to let everyone know and get the word out. This means that we won’t have a sudden, hurried communications effort. It won’t be rushed. People will know where to go when they need.

So I want to kind of give you – one of the main ways we’re gonna do that is through a night-by-night shelter hotline [360-788-7983]. So this hotline number has been the same since 2019. It has not changed. It is updated based on the overnight shelter options that are available. And in that night-by-night shelter hotline people will learn about some of the following options for what’s gonna happen. 

I’m going to just go through with you what we do have this winter, and in partnership with what we’ve got all year long.

So we are continuing our motel stays. We have been doing this all year long. It’s paired with case management. And there are usually 40-50 families staying in hotel rooms. And this is at this point almost every month, that’s what we’re operating with, but that will continue through the winter months. 

Base Camp, which operates 365 days a year, continues to offer 200 beds to the community. And then this year CTK [Christ the King] which is going to also offer the overflow again. In doing so, we are incredibly grateful, but they’ve had to shorten the amount of time they’re able to do it. Last year they struggled to to find enough folks to be able to volunteer. They have a great team, but it was a lot to ask them to do it for – you know, I think they did it for like four months or so, maybe even longer. 

So this year they’re going to be operating from December 1st through February 28th 2023. And in doing so, they’re going to use the 1013 West Holly Street. They’re going to partner with Base Camp, and they’re going to be able to operate with about 40 beds that are focused for men. So that will increase the amount of room for women to be staying at the Base Camp location. 

The YWCA last year opened up five beds within their ballroom space to operate during the winter and they have actually maintained that the full year. They continue to operate and do that. So they’re going to continue doing that. And there is a possible expansion that they’re working on, a partnership we told them that we’d be able to help support that. But I don’t want to go too much into that one right now. So there could be potentially a few more beds there, as well.

We’re very excited, the Ferndale Resource Center is also going to be offering up some spots. So they are going to be dealing with severe weather shelter, as well, with 12 spots. And again, that one is also temperature driven, much like our severe weather shelter. 

Road2Home is going to be operating the severe weather shelter for us. That will house maybe 30 folks, or so. We got to lay the cots out and see how they fit in there. But that will be an additional 30. 

And then, let’s see, I want to make sure I’m getting them all. It’s worth noting that the Road2Home partnership we’ve got going is also very much in partnership with the City of Bellingham, because they’re letting us use their space to do so. 

So, and then the City of Bellingham is entering into a contract, as well, with Road2Home and they’re going to be operating a severe weather day-use warming center. So if you remember back to December of last year, we had a particularly horrific cold spell, where it just never got warm. And so the City is going to be able to operate during times where that might happen. They’re not going to always have that daytime warming space available unless the temperatures are not getting above that threshold of 28 degrees. So, but they’re going to be operating that contract with Road2Home and we’re going to be doing the overnight contract. 

Whatcom County Council Chair Todd Donovan: Ann, can I ask you something real quick?

Ann Beck: Sure.

Council Chair Todd Donovan: So will Road2Home – they’re going to be doing this sort of night shelter that we stood up on the fly – Jed’s running around trying to find people to staff – will they have, like, a permanent – how do they find people at short-term notice to staff that place.

Ann Beck: So the contract is starting sooner rather than later. So they’re going to be able to do – start recruiting volunteers, getting trainings in place, buying the supplies that are needed. So the contract is starting – it hasn’t officially been signed, but I think we’re aiming for early October. So that being said, it will give them time to kind of ramp up their programming ahead of time. So it won’t be last minute.

Council Chair Todd Donovan: They’ll have people that’ll be able to be on call, essentially, and work the evenings?

Ann Beck: Yeah. They’ll have people on site who are employed, and they’ll also have trained up enough volunteers that they’ll be able to do a call for volunteers when they’re going to open. 

So, and that’s part of the payment thing. Folks will be able to be paid for that time of having to kind of be, essentially, on call for when it’s going to happen. And typically we like to try to offer 48 hours ahead, but it could be 24 hours – we, at least, minimum 24 hours advance notice so there’s not such a hurried rush and give people time to go for that and get ready. 

So, some of the ways we’re going to get the information out, because that’s another big thing is making sure the same information is going out far and wide throughout the community, so that Council also – I know that you hear from a lot of folks in the public and this will be a way for you to be able to share out information – but there’s going to be flyers created and distributed. And they’re going to be distributed by our outreach teams, but also by our first responders. You know, Mike Hilley’s team has been so wonderful. They kinda keep the flyers in their trucks and they make sure they get out to folks they’re coming across in our community. And the same will go for our GRACE, you know, outreach teams. 

The hotline number will be updated with information as soon as the call is made. What we will do at the Health Department is notify the Whatcom Homeless Service Center – they’re the ones that update that hotline – and then we will also be updating our own webpage with the winter shelter options to let folks know what’s happening, and notify our partners at the City so they can do the same – the City of Bellingham.

Shelter openings will also be shared on social media via Facebook and Nextdoor. And we’ll make sure all of our homeless housing partners are also made aware. Council Member Kershner?

Whatcom County Council Member Kathy Kershner: Thanks Ann. Can you remind us of how much this contract was for, or will be for. And what’s the funding source of this work? 

Ann Beck: Yeah, so this particular contract with Road2Home will be just shy of $25,000.00, so it won’t actually be making it’s way to Council, but that’s partially why I’m here to get you filled in on what’s going on.

It doesn’t – it might not necessarily all be spent out. Again it’s gonna be spent out based on how many times folks have called up and what kinds of supplies are used, and so at that point, that’s what that amount is. And the funding source I believe –

Council Member Kershner: Did you say shy of $100,000.00? 

Ann Beck: No, of $25,000.00.

Council Member Kershner: $25,000. Thank you.

Ann Beck: It would definitely be coming to you if it was shy of $100,000.00.

Council Member Kershner: That’s what I thought. That’s why I clarified, thanks. 

Ann Beck: Yeah. And the funding source is ESG funding. So the Emergency Solutions Grant funding we got. This has kinda been tied to some of the COVID funding we got early on, so, federal funding.

And then we’ve also talked with the folks in Ferndale and let them know that we are happy to also offer some funding to them to operate their shelter because they’re part of Whatcom County and we’re so grateful that there’s something happening outside the City of Bellingham too. 

Council Member Kershner: Thanks.

Ann Beck: Sure. Just, I wanna highlight a few new, kind of like, assets that we’re grateful for this winter. We did manage to buy 4 industrial-strength heaters. So I know that doesn’t sound like a big thing, but it does mean that at least we’re able to set up a shelter on the fly, I guess, if we need to for some reason. If we had to go to a location like Depot Market, which is rather chilly and cold to begin with, having these industrial sized heaters stored here with Facilities, we can pull them out and stick them in a place that’ll provide some warmth.

We’ve also been able to expand the Homeless Outreach Team crew to conduct that outreach. And we are grateful that COVID is, well, while still present, it doesn’t have the same impact it once did. So, we’re able to have more congregate settings and not have it be quite so scary for folks. 

Council Chair Todd Donovan: So Ann, did you say they will be using the Depot Market or what –

Ann Beck: No, I’m sorry, we’re using – at this point we are planning to use the Civic locker rooms like we did last time. So, thanks to the City, once again, for sharing that space with us. And then they also, you know, often it falls on some of their staff to help with the maintenance of that too. 

Council Chair Todd Donovan: We won’t be using Civic downtown here where we were also -?

Ann Beck: No. Facilities, I made a joke once when we were doing a walk-through after they remodeled, about using it as a shelter and it did not land well. So, I don’t think this will ever be using, hopefully, the Garden Level Conference Room again.

Council Chair Todd Donovan: [confirming] Civic Field. 

Ann Beck: So we, I just want to remind you all, we continue to fund the operations of services along the entire housing spectrum. Emergency Shelter options like this are just one piece of that spectrum. 

Working together with our community partners, Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham invest approximately $15 million a year and support pathways for those with critical housing needs, homeless prevention for those with immediate risk, long-term housing stability for those left behind by the housing market, and crisis response for things like outreach, shelter, and other basic needs to those who have become homeless. 

So, this is just one of those pieces. And I think that this year has been a challenging year. I mean, many years have been challenging years it feels like lately. But, in the world of housing there’s been a big spotlight on our houseless neighbors and the programs that are serving them and the community partners who are operating. So, it’s a lot that’s being done. And this is just one sliver of it.

Council Chair Todd Donovan: Mr. Buchanan, and then Ms. Frazey.

Whatcom County Council Member Buchanan: Thanks, Ann, for that presentation. It was great. In Tyler’s presentation he just did on the ARPA funds, I noticed there was a line item in there for the Way Station. I wonder if you could just give a little update on the timeline for that. 

Ann Beck: I wish I could. I’ll be quite – I’ll be honest, I have not worked as closely with the Way Station. It has been more, I think, from our Community Health side of the house, and Tyler’s probably even better able to speak to that. I haven’t been pulled into it yet, not that I don’t want to, but I just have a lot of other things happening. 

Council Member Buchanan: Sure.

Ann Beck: I can say that all of my colleagues have moved out of State Street. So there’s no longer a Health Department staff station there. 

Council Member Frazey: Ann, I want to thank you – this is – and to the Health Department, because, you know – Council Member Buchanan, we brought the other, the Homeless Strategies group – seeing this come to light, you know, when we first did the – set up one in 2018 to all work there and it wasn’t – we did our best but it’s great to see a coordinated effort and a strategy, and yeah, just want to thank you – having seen this since then, it’s just, it’s exciting what the Homeless Strategies group, Workgroup came up with, is actually coming to light and helping people, so thank you. 

Council Chair Donovan: Council Member Galloway.

Council Member Galloway: Yeah, I had some questions about the severe weather shelter’s guiding assumptions. And I may have missed the last time that you said this had been updated, but I think something that comes to mind, when I think about severe weather, is not just cold. It could be extreme heat, it could be extreme smoke, other weather patterns that might be, you know, unhealthy to unsheltered folks. So, I guess, you know, my first question is, have we considered updating these assumptions to account for other severe weather patterns?

And then the second is, in terms of temperature being 28 degrees, I know that, again, that’s been in there awhile and that was used in previous years, but man, that’s cold! And so I don’t know if there – and I know there’s mention here that 32 could be an activation factor, as well, but maybe just speaking to that a little bit. I don’t know if it would make sense to raise that to, you know, 35 or 38 or something, but I just feel like that’s really cold. 

Ann Beck: Yeah. The 28 degrees piece has been challenging because there’s no one number that feels good to anybody. It’s cold outside and we want our community members warm. The challenge is, like I mentioned, the capacity to operate shelters, there’s not a lot of it. And so, temperatures at certain level are gonna mean that we’re going to be operating another ongoing, all winter shelter, which I don’t know that we can do. So we have really focused on trying to figure out life-saving measures. The focus is how do we get people in out of that freezing cold for a period of time and try to kind of save lives. So I agree with you, it’s not a number that feels really good, but it’s kind of where we are right now in trying to get some kind of life-saving measures in place. 

Speaking to the other temperature, not temperature, the other weather conditions that happen that impact our community, at this point we’re focused solely on the cold because it affects our unhoused neighbors the most. Heat and smoke have a tendency to impact the larger community, in general. It impacts, you know, our seniors living in their housing, who can’t open their windows because of the – even though it’s hot – the smoke will then come in. It’s a much larger than just this population that my team has really focused on. So, I’ve talked a little bit with some of my colleagues, and we’re working to figure out, what are the next steps – look at a larger, county-wide approach to addressing, kind of the climate change, things that are starting to happen more and more in our community to impact the entire vulnerable population within Whatcom County.

I’ll be honest, there’s only three staff that are focused on housing over here – two and three quarters, I should say. And so their ability to operate, or to kind of focus on the entire Whatcom County and the vulnerable populations throughout is fairly limited.

So, at this point we’re focused on that cold and we’re willing to work with our partners, either with Department of Emergency Management, Planning, you know, whoever might be the most appropriate. Let’s figure out how we can start looking at some of those other larger community-wide vulnerable impacts.

Council Chair Donovan: Any more questions for –

Ann Beck: I did have a little bit more that I wanted to share with you. 

Council Chair Donovan: Oh, sorry, go ahead –

Ann Beck: No, that’s okay. I wanted to just – that’s kind of the bulk about what we’ve done for the severe weather shelter. But I wanted to just make note of a couple things. 

While homelessness in general has been increasing over the past several years, we have also seen – we’ve seen unsheltered homelessness decrease. So in 2020 – and I’m sorry, 2012, when they did a point in time count and that’s when homelessness was at it’s kind of lowest in this community, 78% of the people that were counted were unsheltered at that time – I’m sorry, 60% of the people who were counted were unsheltered at that time. And most recently when we did our point in time count, 78% of people who were counted were sheltered. So it shows that we have been making some strides in increasing our shelter capacity for people in the community, even as homelessness increases.

And then a couple accomplishments, because I think it’s good to end on a good note. In a world of eviction prevention which again, which is where we wanna try and help stop people from falling into homelessness, the Opportunity Council helped get $25,650,000.00 in rental assistance distributed throughout the community, which means over 28,000 months of rent was paid here in Whatcom County, throughout the entire county. And that has helped for pay over 3000 households to remain in housing. So that’s huge. Imagine if we had even half that number of households entering into homelessness. 

And then, Tyler Schroeder mentioned it a little bit, with our housing developments funds we were able to preserve 145 units of housing, Evergreen Ridge, with other partners in the community. We’ve been able to use some of our 1406 funds to support operating costs for 27 new units of family permanent supportive housing. So there’s some at Heart House, which is operated by Lydia Place, as well as Trail View. We recently signed off on that contract. There were 16 units there. 

We also invested some ARPA funds to help Kushan Community Land Trust potentially add 50 new units of homeownership opportunities to our community. 

So there has been a lot of good work happening throughout the year, not just the immediate kind of stop-gap shelter work, although we’re going to continue to do that – try to address along the whole spectrum if we can. So, and now I’m done.

Council Chair Donovan: Okay. On a high note. Any further questions? Thanks for ending on a positive note. 

Ann Beck: Sure thing. Thank you all. 

One thought on “Transcript: update from the Whatcom County Health Department on severe weather shelter plans / Noisy Waters Northwest

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