February 7 severe weather sheltering update reveals need to prioritize funding / Noisy Waters Northwest

February 16, 2023 Dena Jensen

Time to call on Whatcom County Council Members to be proactive in making sheltering a priority. Contact info is at the bottom of this post.

With forecasted lows in the 20s starting to show up for next week this time, it’s all the more relevant to consider the on-the-fly severe weather shelter update that Whatcom County Health Department’s Community Health and Services Manager Ann Beck gave to Whatcom County Council’s 2/7/23 Finance and Administrative Services Committee which I’m including in this post.

The brief to County Council Members supplied a lot of important details that are otherwise hard to come by, regarding how the shelter at Bellingham’s Civic Field has come together and has been operating this winter season. 

Because the County had access to federal funding, it left severe weather sheltering of at-risk community members less prone to falling too low on the list of other locally funded projects. Therefore, the Health Department actually financially supported severe weather sheltering this year. 

And when Road2Home, the organization that answered the direct ask from Whatcom County, requested extra assistance to handle the very significant work load they had taken on, according to Ms. Beck, the County responded with some other means of support (although vaguely stated in her brief presentation), unlike the 2020/2021 winter season when many of the all-volunteer workers repeatedly requested the County’s help.  

The biggest take-away, to me, is that this severe weather shelter is sheltering people, and in much closer to the manner people have been calling for them to be sheltered in winters past. Government agencies often made it sound like it was all but impossible to do, which has not been a great approach if the County was wanting people to be responding to a Request for Proposals to operate one. But people need the shelters and they have been filling them this year. 

Ms. Beck’s presentation starts at the 00:53:55 minute mark of the recording at this link of the County Finance and Administrative Services Committee meeting: http://whatcom.granicus.com/player/clip/884?view_id=1&redirect=true&h=6f6ea44c504e0e7124a332cdc5fee06f

Ann Beck: “I didn’t create any formal presentation, and welcome any questions you may have. I just wanted to share some numbers with you all. I’m Ann Beck, Community Health and Human Services Manager with the Whatcom County Health and Human – and Community Services Department. Sorry, that’s a lot of things, and working to remember here. 

“So we are just into the month of February and we have opened the overnight severe weather shelter 21 nights. When we first did this – this is the very first time we have contracted with somebody to do it. As you remember, early on when it kind of fell on the Health Department, saying this is something you need to do, we worked with community partners that had a volunteer situation, faith based organizations supported that. 

“Then COVID kind of changed that landscape a bit, as it wasn’t as safe for folks to do that, and we were kind of hodge-podging things together. 

“So this was the first year we had a formal RFP [Request for Proposal] process, invited people to apply – or agencies to apply to run this. We actually had nobody apply. Nobody would apply to do this work.

“So, we reached out to Road2Home who had helped kind of at the tail end with our IQF facility [Isolation and Quarantine Facility] – helped operate that, and then they also, in partnership with LIHI [Low Income Housing Institute] operate the Gardenview tiny homes. And we asked if they might be interested in taking it on.

“It took a little bit of convincing. We were glad to have them sign up, but they are – this is the first time out the gate that we have done it and they have done it.

“So, some numbers for you, just to give you an idea of where we are at. Of the 21 nights we – if we average out all of the stays – we’ve had an average stay of 48 guests a night. Our largest one was on December 21st when they had 70 guests.

“That was during the height of that really intense cold weather snap we had where it was like, 8 degrees out some nights, so they – yes -“

Council Member Todd Donovan: “Was that just Civic? Or was that across the other -“

Ann Beck: “That is just across the Road2Home Civic building operation. So, they were preparing for 35 to 40 folks and they had 70, but they did not want to turn anybody away who was coming to the door and it’s 8 degrees outside. 

“So they were very resourceful and made it happen. It was also really hard on them and they made it clear that they could not continue like this unless we helped figure out some ways to support them. So we kind of put some other steps in place to support them.

“The lowest number of guests that attended were November 7th. We opened right after the gate in November. It was kind of surprising, but they were ready. They opened and they had 29 guests come that night. 

“The busiest night of shelter across the board was on December 22nd. Every single shelter bed that we had operational was full. So, Lighthouse Mission was at their capacity. Christ the King’s overflow was at their capacity. And Road2Home had also hit – well, I mean, like 69 guests. 

“So there were 322 guests in shelter that night. We opened 14 nights in December, 5 nights in November, and so far, in January, 2 nights. 

“This contract runs through the end of March. We don’t know what the weather will do anymore and just how long it will last. I will say that December bit was incredibly hard because the weather never warmed up in the day.

“And so they were also operating a daytime warming center in partnership with the City of Bellingham out of the library. And so – but they had a lot of folks who didn’t want to leave the shelter space to go to there – even though there was some transportation. It’s just hard to navigate, you know, moving 70 people out of the space. 

“So Road2Home began operating both locations day and night and kept some folks there at the overnight shelter, as well as operating. 

“So, it has been – we’re coming to ask for more money. I anticipated we would be asking for more money when we originally wrote this contract because it was – we did it based on 15 nights, having never opened like this and knowing what the staffing costs would be.

“It’s incredibly hard to find volunteers during the really big cold snaps for extended periods of time that fall on a holiday, which is how it seems to happen every time. So they’ve had to pull in a lot of personnel. They’ve had their executive director working shifts, so it’s just been a little bit more costly than anticipated.

“So, that’s – I mean, I have all the like, costs per activation, that kind of stuff. But I, for me, it has been wonderful to have somebody else doing this. 

“It doesn’t mean I haven’t still cried at home, wondering why we’re having to deal – like, it’s just – it’s so much because the numbers keep coming and there’s just – and you feel – I know what it’s like when you’re in that shelter and somebody is in need and you don’t have what they need in that situation. 

“So, Road2Home has been navigating – they’ve been navigating it wonderfully. And I definitely see room for all of us in the next year in how to kind of improve and have a better idea of what it’s going to look like.

“That being said, at this point the funds for this are not local. They are federal funding. This is our ESG funding and there’s a little bit of ARPA in there, as well. And the ESG funds end this year. They end in September of this year. 

“So at the end of the year, for the next winter season, there’s not currently anything budgeted for this beyond maybe using some ARPA funds, but the year after that – it’s just gonna – if this is something that we’re gonna address, we’re gonna need to start looking at how to fund this operation without those federal funds.” 

Whatcom County
Whatcom County Executive:
Satpal Sidhu <ssidhu@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Phone: 360-778-5200

Whatcom County Council:
Entire Council (for the record) <council@co.whatcom.wa.us>;
Barry Buchanan <bbuchana@co.whatcom.wa.us>; 
Todd Donovan <tdonovan@co.whatcom.wa.us>; 
Carol Frazey <cfrazey@co.whatcom.wa.us>; 
Kaylee Galloway <kgallowa@co.whatcom.wa.us>
Tyler Byrd <tbyrd@co.whatcom.wa.us>; 
Kathy Kershner <kkershne@co.whatcom.wa.us>; 
Ben Elenbaas <belenbaa@co.whatcom.wa.us>

Kaylee Galloway 
Phone: 360-489-9192 and 360-778-5023
Todd Donovan  
Phone: 360-483-8474 
Tyler Byrd
Phone: 360-778-5021
Kathy Kershner  
Phone: 360-220-7535 
Ben Elenbaas
Phone: 360-778-5025
Barry Buchanan  
Phone: 360-224-4330
Carol Frazey
Phone: 360-778-5024

Health and Community Services Department:
Phone: 360-778-6000