More than 30 homeless in COVID-19 shelter

A social distancing homeless shelter funded with state COVID-19 relief funds has yet to house a person with the coronavirus after two months of operation, said Andy Brastad, Clallam County Health and Human Services director.

The facility, which has isolation areas for patients with the disease, is being leased from the Port of Port Angeles for $16,000 a month at the taxing district’s 1010 building in west Port Angeles.

It held 32-35 occupants as of Thursday, Brastad said.

The facility also guarantees that people who are homeless can socially distance at 6 feet or more from other people to prevent the spread of the virus, which could not be guaranteed at the nearby Serenity House of Clallam County shelter; that facility cannot operate at full capacity.

“It’s been fortunate we haven’t had any COVID-related issue to deal with because it makes things simpler for everyone,” Brastad said.

“Unfortunately, we have this number of people who are seeking shelter, and there isn’t enough room at Serenity House at this point in time, so we are using the shelter we already had in place to help these people.”

The county’s lease with the port expires July 31 and will likely be extended to at least Oct. 31, but efforts already are under way to find a replacement facility.

They are focused on “looking at some kind of long-term, sustainable sheltering options, [by] working within our existing shelter community, for folks who are really using the social distancing shelter for primary sheltering,” county Health Officer Dr. Allison Unthank said Tuesday at the Board of Health meeting.

“Also, we have increases in people experiencing homelessness with COVID-19 and so forth,” she said.

“That work is ongoing, with the goal eventually of having our department primarily focused on isolation and quarantine of people who are sicker as opposed to (having) COVID-19 and then actually transitioning to a shelter … for primary sheltering.”

The social-distancing shelter is being rented under a four-month lease covered by a $433,000 state Department of Commerce COVID-19 homeless-relief grant awarded to Clallam County.

It’s being staffed with assistance from Olympic Community Action Programs (OlyCAP).

OlyCAP Executive Director Cherish Cronmiller said Thursday anyone who needs help can stay at the shelter.

They have their temperatures checked — fever is one of the COVID-19 symptoms — wear face masks that protect others if they are asymptomatic, and they have access to clean bathrooms instead of random rest rooms.

The environment offered in the facility “is really sort of critical for this population,” Cronmiller said.

“I see people getting upset at the overflow of people at Serenity House camping outside, or on the streets.

“Especially in this climate, I would hope that everyone would try to be sensitive to how vulnerable this population is.

“There are so many people out in the community who are living in places not fit for human habitation.”

Serenity House Executive Director Sharon Maggard said, in effect, the social distancing facility has become an additional homeless shelter.

When it opened in April, the 25 tents erected at Serenity House dwindled to 15.

“A lot of the people, we encouraged from our shelter to go there for social distancing or for peace and quiet,” Maggard said.

With social distancing, Serenity House can hold 73 people inside the facility compared with 108 if COVID-19 were not ever-present; it currently houses 51-61 people per night.

Maggard said the homeless comprise people temporarily down on their luck, those chronically homeless who periodically retreat into seclusion, the addicted or mentally disabled, and homeless youth ages 12-24.

Maggard is working with county Commissioner Randy Johnson and Kevin LoPiccolo, county assistant Health and Human Services director, on ensuring that social-distancing-shelter residents don’t end up back on the streets.

“I know we are working on it, we just haven’t come up with the right solution yet,” Maggard said.

Funding is budgeted for the shelter through Dec. 31, Johnson said Thursday.

But federal funds come with numerous and cumbersome requirements, he warned.

“It makes it difficult to do any kind of construction between now and Oct. 31,” he said.

Johnson said he expects port officials would be willing to extend the lease at least beyond July 31. Port officials could not be reached for comment late Thursday afternoon.

While no one with COVID-19 has had to be housed at the 1010 Building, “you still have to be ready if you have an outbreak,” Johnson said.

One option may be to create more shelter space by expanding onto the site of an existing facility such as Serenity House, he added.

Johnson, too, has heard criticism over funding the shelter.

“The issue is so broad and wide,” Johnson said.

“How could you really criticize a woman who is 80 years old and lives on $750 a month and lives in or car, or an abused wife who is homeless with a kid, or the working poor living in a tent?

“Those are real stories.”

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