WENATCHEE — Chelan and Douglas counties may have a low-barrier shelter by the end of 2021, as a local task force must move forward in order to use a time-limited state grant.
The Chelan-Douglas Local Homeless Housing Task Force is aiming to have a low-barrier shelter complete by the end of 2021 or early 2022, Sandra Van Osten, city of Wenatchee housing program coordinator, said in an email. Chelan and Douglas counties received a $642,636 grant to find land, construct and operate a low-barrier shelter. They have until June 30, 2023, to complete the project.
Wenatchee Mayor Frank Kuntz said the task force and other interested parties have been looking at low-barrier shelters in Washington as examples.
“We went to Moses Lake in the middle of January to see the low-barrier shelter they built,” Kuntz said. “It looks great. It’s an outdoor facility. It’s totally fenced in. It’s got like 30 or so small little sheds like you might see at Lowe’s or Home Depot.”
The task force will convene within the next few months to make a final decision on how to proceed with the program, Van Osten’s email said.
The task force is looking at sites in East Wenatchee and Wenatchee where a shelter could be placed, but questions still remain about the cost to operate it, Kuntz said. Kuntz is not on the homelessness task force and does not know all the details.
“It doesn’t make much sense if you have enough money to build it, but not enough to operate it,” he said.
Both Chelan and Douglas counties have money that goes toward reducing homelessness. But people on the task force are concerned about diverting money away from rent assistance toward a low-barrier shelter, Kuntz said.
A low-barrier shelter allows people to stay somewhere overnight without some of the conditions of other shelters. It can allow people to bring their dogs, accommodate those with disabilities and some shelters allow people under the influence of substances.
The task force right now is anticipating the shelter will serve adults only, including couples and multi-person households, Van Osten said. They will not be allowed to use drugs and alcohol on-site, but can show up under the influence of substances, as long as they are not disruptive and abide by health and safety rules.
Employees at the shelter will be trauma informed and be able to provide immediate help to those using the shelter, she said. The purpose of the shelter will be to help people find food, medical care and get them into permanent housing.
Right now, no local governments provide shelter services in Chelan and Douglas counties, except through hotel vouchers and the temporary cold-weather shelter. Instead, all shelters are operated by private agencies, including religious organizations with their own rules and regulations.
The low-barrier shelter will replace the cold-weather shelter once it is complete, Van Osten said.
If Chelan and Douglas counties had a low-barrier shelter, it would make it easier to enforce city codes about camping in public parks, Kuntz said. City police now cannot force people to leave, as there are no places for them to go.
Task force members are considering criteria for the location, such as access to transportation, keeping it away from schools and making sure a shelter will not impact neighborhoods, Chelan County Commissioner Kevin Overbay said at a Jan. 19 commission meeting. Overbay is a member of the homelessness task force.
The shelter in Moses Lake has a heated bathroom that can be used at night, Kuntz said. Residents are also given a meal when they show up and a meal when they leave.
Task force members are also interested in the shelter in Moses Lake, because it is easy to move, he said.
The debate over a low-barrier shelter and how to get additional housing for unsheltered homeless has been an ongoing issue for the task force.
In 2019, the state Department of Commerce threatened to pull $1 million in funding from the task force because it was not housing enough homeless people, according to previous reporting. The state wanted communities to shelter 60% of homeless individuals and in 2019, Chelan and Douglas counties were sheltering 39%, according to state metrics.
The low-barrier shelter would help the task force toward that 60% goal.