As winter approaches and overnight temperatures begin to drop, community members throughout Clark County are working to ensure that their neighbors experiencing homelessness will be safe from the elements.
“For those living outside, winter can be a particularly harsh experience,” the Council for the Homeless, a Clark County nonprofit dedicated to preventing and ending homelessness, recently noted. “In Clark County, communities of faith collaborate with local agencies that address homelessness to create additional safe overnight shelter for people who are unhoused.”
The Council’s extended winter Housing Hotline and the county’s faith-based network of winter-overflow and severe-weather shelters — including the ReFuel Washougal severe weather shelter that opens inside the St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Washougal when temperatures dip below freezing or when it is snowing or icy outside — provided 514 people, including nearly 30 children, with a safe place to sleep during the winter of 2021-22.
“Emergency shelter is lifesaving. The ultimate goal is for each person and family to have a permanent place to live.”said Clara Johnson, the Council for the Homeless’ coordinated outreach director. “In addition to meeting the guests’ urgent needs, the sites work within the homeless response system to ensure the guests receive the breadth of housing and supportive services our community provides.”
The Council for the Homeless counts the number of “safe sleeps,” or the number of nights any shelter bed was used by a person in need. In 2021-22, the local network of winter and severe-weather shelters provided nearly 10,000 “safe sleeps,” said Laura Ellsworth, the Council’s strategic partnerships and advocacy manager.
“Many nonprofits came together to make this happen,” Ellsworth told a group of shelter partners and interested volunteers during a Nov. 17 webinar for people interested in becoming a winter shelter volunteer in Clark County.
The Council provides an extended winter hotline (360-695-9677) from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends and holidays.
“Having the (hotline) open until 8 p.m. seven nights per week gives people more time to call for shelter. Some people are unable to call during regular business hours and they need the after 5 p.m. option,” said Madeline Klemz, the Council for the Homeless’ housing hotline manager.
People in need of winter shelter can call the hotline to access one of the winter shelters in Vancouver.
Currently, there are five winter shelters in Vancouver – Outsiders Inn shelters at Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church, Immanuel Lutheran Church, River City Church and St. Paul Lutheran Church and a SHARE shelter at St. Andrew Lutheran Church — providing “safe sleeps” from November through March to guests screened by the Council’s Homeless Hotline. Two severe-weather shelters — the ReFuel shelter at St. Matthew Lutheran in Washougal and a shelter inside the Living Hope Church in Vancouver — are able to take walk-in guests as space allows.
Though money from federal COVID-19 recovery funds is able to pay for trained, overnight staff at the main winter shelters, volunteers are still needed to help prepare or serve meals, greet and check-in guests, distribute bedding and shower supplies and do some light clean up. The severe-weather shelters rely more heavily on volunteers.
“Two of our partners — Living Hope Church and ReFuel Washougal – open if they have the volunteers and capacity to staff (the severe-weather shelters),” Ellsworth said.
The Washougal severe-weather shelter, run by ReFuel Washougal in conjunction with the city of Washougal, opens from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. during declared severe weather events and has the capacity to welcome 20 guests per night, but only if the shelter has enough volunteers to staff the shelter.
ReFuel Washougal has said its goals for the severe-weather shelter are “to provide a welcoming, safe place to sleep, simple food and access to a bathroom during severe weather events; provide volunteers with the training and support needed for a safe and meaningful experience; and be a community that cares by showing compassion for our fellow community members, specifically those who are most vulnerable during severe weather conditions.”
“They’re always looking for meals and volunteers,” Ellsworth said of the Washougal severe-weather shelter. To inquire about helping the local Washougal site, fill out the “contact us” form at refuelwashougal.org/se or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Council for the Homeless’ Nov. 17 volunteer webinar helped answer would-be volunteers’ questions regarding everything from safety — including COVID-19 and flu prevention — to what volunteers do during a typical morning or evening shift.
Some volunteers worry about safety issues involving the guests, said Outsiders Inn Executive Director Adam Kravitz.
“We let people visit our spaces,” Kravitz said. “Most of the time, people walk into the spaces and realize it’s people playing games, having coffee. It’s jokes. It’s community. We address safety (concerns) together, and it turns into something really beautiful.”
The hardest part of being a part of the winter shelter system, Kravitz added, has nothing to do with the actual act of providing overnight shelter. Rather, it is sending guests back outside each morning to brave the elements on their own again.
“The hardest part is to ask folks to leave during the day,” Kravitz said, adding that he would love to see Outsiders Inn be able to provide even more support for guests who stay at the winter shelters, “a little more one-on-one before they have to leave and survive the day.”
Ren Autrey, who also works for the nonprofit Outsiders Inn, said her group has a code of conduct for its guests to help people “understand our spaces are safe spaces for rest and relaxation.”
“Everyone has a responsibility to bring that safety into our space,” Autrey said. “We look to our staff to guide that.”
The Outsiders Inn shelter locations tend to be peaceful places, Autrey added.
“Most evenings are kind and quiet,” she said. “People enjoy the space … they didn’t think a shelter was going to be that quiet or normal, so most of our guests are grateful for the space.”
With COVID, flu and respiratory illnesses on the rise again, many of the shelter organizers said they are trying to keep illness prevention in mind this winter.
“Masks are optional, but we do a symptom-check every night when people check in, and we do have an isolation room if they’re COVID positive,” said Jane Seidel, the site coordinator at the St. Andrew Lutheran winter hospitality overflow shelter. “We’re very hopeful. We never had a single case of COVID the whole time and we had up to 40 people … so we’re taking these precautions because it worked before and we’re hopeful it will work now, too.”
Pastor Adrienne Strehlow, with the Immanuel Lutheran Church in Vancouver, said this is the first year since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that her church’s winter shelter will not require people to wear masks.
“But the staff is very clear that if people volunteering — or guests — have any kind of symptoms at all, that they mask up,” Strehlow said. “We do encourage people to mask if that is more comfortable … and we encourage keeping distance and do a lot of sanitation.”
Strehlow’s shelter site offers guests the opportunity to take a warm shower and can provide “at least six showers” per night. Volunteers are needed to help get the shower area prepared, distribute shower supplies to guests and remind guests of the 15-minute shower limit. Other volunteers may help distribute bedding, serve breakfast and lay out the staff-prepared takeaway lunches for guests who are leaving for the day.
Strehlow said enjoys the meal times at the shelter, which is going into its fifth season of providing winter shelter to those in need.
“All of us sitting there, having time to connect and be equals,” she said. “It’s my favorite time.”
Other shelter organizers also shared things they were looking forward to during the winter season, which kicked off Nov. 1, with the reopening of the winter hospitality overflow shelters.
“We’re seeing more families this year … and, it breaks my heart, but I look forward to playing card games with the kiddos,” Autrey said. “And to having conversations with those who are just looking for a night of normalcy over a game of ‘Tic Tac Toe’ or ‘Go Fish.'”
Cheryl Pfaff, who helps organize the winter shelter at Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church, said she looks forward to experiencing a sense of community with the guests who rely on the winter shelter.
“Prior to COVID, we sometimes served the same group of people all winter,” Pfaff said. “We had celebrations when people were able to find apartments. One year, we had a gentleman who was there with his wife. He was a well-known musician in his area … and would bring his instrument and play for us. We became a tight-knit family that year. So I’m looking forward to building those types of relationships again.”
Ellsworth said volunteers are critical to the success of the area’s winter shelter and severe-weather shelter system.
“Volunteers are able to provide the most basic human needs during the dark winter months, and that is something that is very worthwhile,” Ellsworth said, adding that shelter sites provide volunteers the training they need and that “safety is the utmost priority for everybody.”
The emergency shelters provide for people’s short-term needs, Ellsworth added, giving guests the much-needed ability to “decompress, knowing they have a safe place to sleep (that night).”
The Council for the Homeless has a website (councilforthehomeless.org/winter-shelter-volunteering/) for those interested in volunteering at a winter shelter. Interested community members can sign up to volunteer for morning or evening shifts, to help during severe weather events or to provide meals at the Vancouver or Washougal shelters.
For those who would like to help, but are unable to volunteer in person or prepare meals, Ellsworth suggests donating money instead of time.
“They can buy things like bus passes, which are really important (for people experiencing homelessness),” she said.
Ellsworth also said there is a need for more shelter opportunities in north Clark County and encouraged pastors or church leaders who are interested in using their site as a winter or severe-weather shelter to contact her directly by emailing email@example.com.
The city of Camas has no overnight or severe-weather shelters, but the issue of homelessness was part of a citywide discussion in September, when city leaders approved an ordinance that allows police to enforce a camping ban in several of the city’s public spaces, including five Camas parks — Crown Park, Dorothy Fox Park, Forest Home Park, Grass Valley Park and Prune Hill Sports Park — within 200 feet of playgrounds, picnic shelters and sports fields in the city’s other parks, within 100 feet of the Columbia River, Washougal River, Lacamas and Round lakes and Lacamas Creek, and in any “wildfire-impact” areas.
If people experiencing homelessness are camping in other public areas within Camas, police must first determine if overnight shelter is available. “If the officer determines there is no available overnight shelter. the officer shall not issue a citation,” the ordinance states. “If the officer determines there is available overnight shelter, the officer may, within their discretion: provide directions to the shelter location or … offer one-time transport to the shelter locations … Any individual who refuses to accept the shelter space offered is subject to citation or arrest.”
Ellsworth said she has heard the severe-weather shelter in Washougal is usually “pretty full” and that there may be a need for a winter shelter in Camas-Washougal that could open every night during the winter months.
“There may be a need there beyond just the severe-weather events,” Ellsworth said. “People want to be inside during the winter.”
Ellsworth said the winter shelter system is a community effort.
“It does take all of us and Clark County is really, really good at this. The community does an amazing amount of work each winter,” she said.
In her closing remarks during the Nov. 17 webinar, Ellsworth thanked those interested in volunteering at the winter shelters and urged them to share what they’d learned with their communities.
“Our neighbors without homes … deserve our compassion and understanding,” Ellsworth said. “Continue to be kind when you meet people without homes or shelters. It really makes such a huge difference.”