Severe Weather Shelters vitally important on freezing nights

The county’s Severe Weather Shelters (SWS’s) have gotten quite a workout after our recent blast of snow — which resulted in the longest continous operation of the shelters since the program began in 2007.

The four Severe Weather Shelters operating throughout Kitsap County serve as a vital stopgap against people dying from exposure.

Despite that fact, and known homelessness in the area, the Kingston shelter remains under-utilized. If no guests have shown up by 9 p.m. on a night of the shelter being activated, it closes. Part of the challenge is how to reach local homeless with news of shelter’s activation. The news is communicated in a variety of ways: websites, text alerts and Facebook pages, including ours, but that presumes a phone or online access for the prospective user, which is not always the case. Notifications also appear on Kitsap Transit and the electronic reader board in Kingston.

When activated and utilized, the local SWS at Village Green is open from 6:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. Volunteers work in pairs on roughly four hour shifts, with an additional hour for cleanup. Guests are supposed to remain in the building once they’ve arrived. Cots, blankets, and towels for showering are provided, and those are washed daily.

Kingston Cares initiated the local SWS about five years ago, and along with Village Green signed a legal agreement with the county to host the local site. Establishing a SWS requires a hosting organization (Kingston Cares) which provides the organizational structure and supplies, an appropriate site, volunteers willing to be site managers (shared locally by Jane Mack, Ruth Westergaard, and Mary Gleysteen), and a large enough volunteer base in the community to staff the shelter.

As in so many other instances, these volunteers are often seniors. Obviously it takes a special person for this work, those on the overnight shift particularly deserve praise, not to mention these volunteers are typically braving the roads in adverse weather conditions. Recently, the Kitsap County Department of Emergency Management (KCDEM) transferred some responsibility for the shelters to the Housing and Homelessness Division (KCHHD).

KCHHD is now responsible for shelter coordination, training site managers and volunteers, managing newly implemented scheduling software, organizing meetings, and providing an on-call contact for emergencies. KCDEM still processes volunteer applications, issues state emergency worker cards, and makes the community announcements which organizations like ShareNet receive.

KCHHD program specialist Cory Derenburger is in close contact with KCDEM on translating weather information into activation determination, and provides notification and scheduling for volunteers, as well as general support to shelter staff. Derenburger says the two biggest challenges the shelters face are having enough staffing and getting the word out.

Criteria to open the shelters is necessarily specific. If any one of the following conditions is expected, with staffing the shelters may activate: temps at or below 32 degrees for more than four hours on one or more successive nights; snow accumulation exceeding one inch or more for two or more dates; two or more successive days of one inch or more of rain; or when high wind warnings are issued. There are times when local conditions meet the criteria, but it must be met countywide in order for the shelter to activate.

Participants acknowledge the SWS’s are not a perfect system, but they provided 434 bed nights during the 2017—2018 season. The most guests at a single location per night was 19 during that season. During the recent snow event alone, over 175 bed nights were provided as of Feb. 12, with 114 volunteers filling 225 shifts. Everyone understands the shelters alone do not constitute an adequate response to the problem of homelessness, but this compassionate outreach made by a compassionate community is vitally important on freezing nights.

If you’d like to assist with the shelter or find out more about a working group addressing local homeless issues, contact Ruth Westergaard at ruthkcac@gmail.com

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