WENATCHEE — Wenatchee Valley’s homeless population has two options for cold-weather shelters with a combined 28 beds this season.
The cold-weather shelters are up earlier than last season, which only had a single one that couldn’t open until Jan. 1 due to COVID-19 delays. Both described themselves as low-barrier and were funded by private individuals.
The People’s Foundation — currently in its third year of operating a cold weather shelter — has 15 beds for men and women at St. Joseph Catholic Church on Elliott Avenue (plus two additional beds for overnight staff members). It opened on Dec. 10 and will close on March 1 at the earliest.
“We’re staying busy,” said Gary Steele, who runs the foundation with his wife, Susan. “We’re mostly full each evening or close to it.”
In an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19, the foundation has indoor tents. When outside of the tents, individuals are required to wear a mask. Although unvaccinated individuals won’t be turned away, Steele said his goal is to have close to 100% vaccination for those attending the shelter by the end of December. To help with this, the foundation helped eight of those using the shelter attend a Columbia Valley Community Health vaccine clinic on Dec. 22.
“I’m really struggling with this. I don't have to like to require it,” he said. “It’s very high risk if they don't get vaccinated, and it's pretty high risk for us as well. We want to strongly encourage everybody to get the vaccine if possible.”
Steele said the foundation will pick people up from Columbia Station around 7 p.m. and drive them back to the shelter. Dinner isn’t provided, but snacks, juice water and occasionally pizza are. Lights are out from 9 p.m. until 6:30 a.m., and people are out the door by about 7 a.m.
Steele hasn’t had any children try to stay in the shelter yet, but he said he would work with the state Department of Social and Health Services to find better accommodations for them than a shelter. For any adult overflow, the foundation calls the Gospel House or Wenatchee Rescue Mission.
“We are working with each other and trying to bridge relationships,” Steel said. “It's ideal if we can pull away with the van and there's nobody there and we've made arrangements for everybody to get in (somewhere).”
After hearing about the need for additional cold-weather beds, Scott Johnson, executive director of the Wenatchee Rescue Mission, decided to open 13 beds for women at the mission’s headquarters at 1450 S. Wenatchee Ave.
In talking with women at a homeless camp next to the Salvation Army on South Columbia Street, Johnson said he was told a number of women were turning to prostitution in order to have a warm place to sleep at night because other shelters were full.
“I just thought, we have got to jump into action. I can't let that happen — I can't sleep knowing that,” Johnson said. “It’s a non-budgeted, non-city-funded thing. It's literally just responding to the emergency.”
This is the first time Wenatchee Rescue Mission has hosted women at that location, which serves as a year-round men’s shelter. The women have access to the facility’s existing resources, including meals and showers, and can stay there during the day.
Johnson said one community member donated about $1,000 for the mission to buy cots for the women to sleep on, and Hooked On Toys offered a discount on the cots. However, he’s still looking for donations for blankets, pillows, sleeping bags and feminine hygiene products.
Johnson opened the women’s beds on Dec. 23 and will keep them up “as long as it takes.”
“Obviously it won't be forever,” he said. “But if we can go through the whole season and keep it funded, then we'll be okay.”
Both the shelters are low barrier, meaning things like sobriety and church attendance aren’t requirements. The People’s Foundation accepts pets, while the Rescue Mission is working toward being able to do so.