WENATCHEE — East Wenatchee and Wenatchee have plans to build a low-barrier shelter in South Wenatchee — but what exactly does the term low-barrier actually mean?
Well, it depends on who you ask. But in general low-barrier shelters remove as many barriers as possible that would prevent individuals from entering a traditional high-barrier shelter, such as a requirement for sobriety or church attendance.
“The true definition of low-barrier is first come, first serve,” said Rachel Todd, executive director for YWCA, which runs a shelter in Wenatchee. “You walk up, don’t have anywhere that you are currently living and need a place — you have it. That’s low barrier.”
This type of approach recognizes the myriad of barriers that can and do prevent those experiencing homeless from utilizing shelters.
Although often well-intentioned, requirements may not accommodate the needs or circumstances of someone who is chronically homeless — in essence precluding them from entering the shelter, said Wenatchee Community Development Director Glen DeVries.
What barriers keep people out of shelters?
There are a number of barriers that might prevent someone from staying at a shelter.
Traditionally, some shelters have required individuals to be sober upon entry and to maintain that sobriety. However, breaking addiction can be especially difficult for homeless individuals, according to a 2017 report from the National Coalition for the Homeless. In other words, a sobriety requirement at a shelter could be a Catch 22.
“Since substance abuse is both a cause and result of homelessness, both issues need to be addressed simultaneously,” states the report, which identified the following barriers homeless individuals face in overcoming addiction.
- Many homeless individuals lack health insurance, meaning they’re unable to obtain treatment
- Motivation to stop using substances may be low since survival is more important than personal growth and finding food and shelter take priority over drug counseling
- Many homeless people become estranged from families and friends, leaving them without a social support network to help them recover from a substance addiction
- Those who do break addictions face the difficulty of resisting widely accessible substances in very near proximity
- Many treatment programs focus on abstinence-only programming, which is less effective than harm-reduction strategies and does not address the possibility of relapse
Requirements for church attendance, proof of employment or an active job search, and identification documents can also dissuade individuals from utilizing a shelter.
Shelters that serve a single gender or can’t accommodate children and pets also preclude people. Those with pets, for example, often chose to stay on the streets with their animals rather than give them up in order to enter a shelter.
The type of accommodation within a shelter may also factor into an individual’s choice. Couples, for instance, may prefer the limited privacy of a tent to a dorm-style set up in a shelter that may separate individuals based on gender.
Anxiety or other mental health struggles can also motivate someone to stay on the streets rather than a shelter, which are oftentimes communal living spaces.
Funding guidelines for shelters from the state Department of Commerce also state shelters should place limits on how long an individual can stay.
Do the cities need a low-barrier shelter?
Courts have put limitations on how and when police and local governments can enforce policies regarding homelessness — but a low-barrier shelter could be the key to working within those limitations.
In 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in Martin v. Boise that cities cannot enforce ordinances that prohibit camping or sleeping on public property unless they have sufficient shelter beds to send individuals to. Six homeless plaintiffs had argued that imposing criminal sanctions against homeless individuals when no alternative shelter is available amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and thus violated their Eighth Amendment rights.
Enter Wenatchee and East Wenatchee’s plan for a low-barrier shelter. In theory, the shelter will increase the number of available beds between the two cities. The hope is that the cities’ beds, combined with those from non-profit organizations, will be enough to allow each jurisdiction to enforce ordinances regarding camping and sleeping on public property.
DeVries said the cities will partner with service providers and monitor the annual Point in Time Count (which attempts to survey the homeless population) to get an area of how many beds are needed. He added that working amongst service providers to determine how many beds are available at any given point in time will also be a focus moving forward.
The cities will also need a way to verify low-barrier status if they’re counting shelter beds with the goal of complying with Boise v. Martin. Currently, the Wenatchee Rescue Mission is the only shelter that has been officially certified through the city of Wenatchee as low-barrier.
That certification, which involved a self-reporting form, was in advance of a $100,000 contract with the city for 20 shelter beds. DeVries said the form was based on the Washington State Department of Commerce guidelines.
Whether that verification process continues to be a self-reporting form remains to be determined.
Additional beds from a city-run shelter would help fill existing gaps in service, according to SAGE Director Jessica Johnson. SAGE operates an emergency shelter for domestic violence survivors. She said SAGE’s shelter does have to turn people away because it’s at capacity or the individual doesn’t fall under the category of domestic violence or isn’t sober.
“It would actually be a great help to be able to say, ‘We can’t house you tonight, but you can go here and be safe and then come back in the morning and then we’ll see what else we can do for you,’” Jonson said. “As a nonprofit, we can’t afford to staff a low-barrier shelter around the clock. That’s just out of our scope. But we do need one in Chelan and Douglas counties; that’s obvious.”
What are the existing shelters in Wenatchee? Are they low-barrier?
Sleep shelters in Chelan and Douglas counties have varying degrees of low-barrier.
- is located in downtown Wenatchee and is operated by Lighthouse Christian Ministries. The shelter takes men, women and families and has capacity for about 84 individuals.
Wenatchee Rescue Mission
- , located in South Wenatchee, has 20 low-barrier beds and 60 regular beds. The shelter is also renovating an area that will be used for 10 low-barrier beds for women. Kennels are onsite for pets, and there are three tent spaces outside the shelter for couples, which Director Scott Johnson said is the only space currently available in the valley for couples.
YWCA Emergency Shelter
- is located in Wenatchee and serves women and children. It has capacity for 10 individuals and a 90-day stay limit. The shelter can take pets on a case-by-case basis and works with the Humane Society to find temporary shelter for the pet. A background check is also required.
- operates an emergency shelter at an undisclosed location with capacity for 19 women and children. Only individuals fleeing domestic violence are able to use the shelter. Drugs and alcohol are not allowed on the premises and individuals must be somewhat sober upon entry. The shelter has a 90-day stay limit.
“There is some room for differences in low-barrier shelters as providers may focus on a subset of the population or may have some site or facility constraints,” DeVries said. “It is important that the network of providers as a whole can together accommodate all segments of the homeless population.”
Those facility constraints include things like stairs and bunk beds. Todd, the YWCA director, said those factors, which are both present at the YWCA’s shelter, can be a huge barrier for those with disabilities.
“If folks can’t navigate getting into a top bunk, they can’t access our shelter,” Todd said. “We will never be truly low barrier because of some of the physical barriers of our building.”
Except for YWCA and SAGE, all the shelters in the two counties are religiously affiliated. Todd said that association can sometimes act as a barrier.
“For somebody who has religious trauma in their background, just knowing that there is religion infused into that shelter at all — even if it’s not directly pushed on to the residents — can be super triggering,” Todd said. “I know folks will choose to not access shelter if that is associated with it.”
Lighthouse Ministries Executive Director Shawn Arrington said the organization started following low-barrier guidelines around October 2019.
“We wanted the city really to get their (low-barrier shelter) going on so that we didn’t have to because, you know, it’s obviously going to be more of a headache than a facility with more rules,” Arrington said. “But when we found out that it was going to be so far away before the city was able to have theirs, we just changed the rules. It was less than a 24-hour process: we just literally wiped our rules off and started fresh.”
Now, Arrington says the only requirement is “be safe,” meaning the police or mental health services will be called in cases of violence or mental episodes. “But that doesn’t mean they’ll be removed if they’re having a meltdown.”
Before the switch, Lighthouse residents had to apply for a certain number of jobs and homes a week. The ministry also had a sobriety requirement and rental fees for those with an income.
“We’ve seen that since we actually became a low barrier, people that were at that level became more motivated to get out of that level because it was not as fun of an environment, where before there were rules in place,” Arrington said, adding that occupancy has at least doubled since the switch to low-barrier.
In addition to sleep shelters, some of the organizations listed above and others in the valley provide transitional and permanent supportive housing as well as hotel-motel vouchers, which allow individuals to stay in a hotel rather than on the streets. PowerHouse in East Wenatchee is also a low-barrier day center that offers showers, laundry and a place to relax during the day.
The People’s Foundation also runs an emergency cold weather shelter during the winter that can house about 15 men and women.
- By Sydnee Gonzalez
World staff writer
Do low-barrier shelters have rules?
Yes. Low-barrier does not mean an absence of behavior rules and guidelines.
Guidelines from the state Department of Commerce state that low-barrier shelters’ rules should be “narrowly focused on maintaining a safe environment for participants and the community and avoiding exits to homelessness.”
Low-barrier shelters can establish rules that limit drug or alcohol use in common areas of the shelter or disruptive or violent actions that can result from intoxication, for example, without making sobriety a requirement for residents.
“People often think that low barrier shelters have no rules, guidelines or requirements,” DeVries said. “That is not the case, low barrier shelters do have rules, many of which are behavior based providing a safe environment for residents and staff.”
What would the cities’ low-barrier shelter look like and where would it be located?
The cities are currently looking at some parcels of land across from the Salvation Army Social Service Office on South Columbia Street. A state Department of Transportation plot across the street was also home to a former tent city that was evicted in February.
In April, the cities signed a no-cost lease agreement for some of the parcels, which are owned by former Wenatchee Mayor Dennis Johnson and his wife Sharron Johnson. The remaining land is owned by the Salvation Army, which is working with the city on a possible agreement.
- By Sydnee Gonzalez
World staff writer
Draft plans show the shelter could have 38 shelter units that could house one to two people each (for a total capacity of 76). Onsite services for things like healthcare and mental health counseling would also be available.