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Winter Weather Shelter Programs for the Homeless

Winter Weather Shelter Programs for the Homeless

While many local governments in Washington are working to develop long-term solutions to the problem of homelessness in their communities, they must also respond to more immediate needs that arise during severe weather conditions, particularly during the winter months when temperatures fall to freezing or below. Some communities have developed winter weather shelter programs that provide temporary housing for homeless persons when weather conditions pose a substantial threat to life or health.

Winter weather shelter programs can take many forms, but they often involve a partnership with local faith-based or other nonprofit organizations for the use of private facilities to provide temporary shelter during severe weather periods or events. While it is possible for a city or county to use its own facilities for this purpose, the logistical challenges involved with overnight staffing, meal preparation, scheduling of multipurpose facilities, and other similar issues can make this option less appealing.

This blog offers snapshots of severe weather shelter programs in Kent, Bellevue, and Kitsap County, and sample code provisions from Kelso and Longview authorizing temporary use permits for the operation of emergency winter shelters. A model severe weather shelter program template developed by Washington County, Oregon, has been included as a good starting point for developing a severe weather shelter program in your community.

Kent’s Severe Weather Shelter Program

Following a particularly cold winter in 2008-09, Kent community leaders came together with members of a local faith-based organization to develop a winter weather shelter program to provide temporary housing at a local church during severe cold weather events.

Under the terms of the service agreement, the shelter can be activated by the city’s Housing and Human Services Manager between the months of November and March when “temperatures fall below 32 degrees for 24 or more consecutive hours and/or snow accumulation exceeding or expected to exceed 3 inches in depth and/or other conditions deemed severe enough to present a substantial threat to life or health of homeless persons." Kent’s Severe Weather Shelter Operations guide provides additional details regarding activation procedures and the roles of various program participants.

The city announces the shelter has been activated by emailing community organizations, including the police, fire, and parks departments, local schools, and others, and by hanging signs and posters at various community locations. A YouTube video, produced by the Kent Housing and Human Services Department, describes how the shelter program works.

The program gives priority to homeless families with children (living on the street or in vehicles) but also provides space for single women and men. The shelter is open daily from 9:00 PM to 7:00 AM while severe weather conditions exist.

Shelter staffing is provided by the church and typically includes member volunteers. The volunteers prepare the facility, greet guests, conduct safety screenings, prepare meals, and provide overnight supervision. To address security issues, the police department is notified when the shelter is activated, and staff are instructed to call 9-1-1 if an emergency situation occurs. The church group also provides some staff trained to assist people in crisis, and these providers carry insurance coverage per the terms of the service contract.

Eastside Men's Shelter

The cities of Bellevue, Redmond, Sammamish, Issaquah, and Kirkland contract with Congregations for the Homeless (CFH) to provide an emergency winter shelter for up to 100 men in downtown Bellevue. CFH has operated the Eastside Men’s Shelter as an emergency low-barrier winter shelter at various locations since 2008. Services include mats, blankets, showers, bus tickets, staff supervision, neighborhood security, coffee and snacks, and donated meals. The shelter operates from November through the spring, offering adult men hot meals and a safe place to sleep. Staff are also available to provide referrals to other human services resources.

These cities also contract for shelter facilities for women and families at separate locations. A sample agreement and scope of services document from the CFH Eastside Men’s Shelter are similar to contracts used with other shelter organizations. The shelter operations provide the city with quarterly invoices that include some outcome data like the number of bednights and others. For more information, contact Alex O’Reilly, Human Services Manager for the City of Bellevue.

Kitsap County Severe Weather Shelters

The Kitsap County Severe Weather Shelter Program is a partnership between Kitsap County Human Services Housing and Homelessness Division (KCHHD), Kitsap County Department of Emergency Management (KCDEM), and the organizations that host the shelters. The program operates the from November 1 through March 31 to provide emergency severe weather shelter services. Once activated, the shelters are open between 6:00 PM and 7:00 AM in Poulsbo, Kingston, Silverdale, and Port Orchard. This program, which is open to adults, parents with children, families, and teens, provides emergency shelter to those who need to get in out of hazardous weather conditions and have no other place to go. No drug or alcohol use is allowed onsite, and pets are also not allowed. The county enters into a “Statement of Agreement” with each of the shelter facilities outlining each parties responsibilities.

The shelters open: when it is expected to be 32 degrees or lower for four or more hours; if snow accumulation is expected to exceed one inch or more for more than two days; or if one inch or more of rain is expected over a 2-day period. The KCDEM monitors the forecasts for conditions which meet these criteria and issues a public notification when the shelters are activated. Individuals can sign up to receive text message notifications about shelter activation or dial 2-1-1.

The four shelter locations are hosted by churches or community groups and are staffed by volunteers trained as Washington State Emergency Workers.  During an activation night each location must have two volunteers for each of the three, 5-hour shifts or the shelter location cannot open. The county coordinates the program with the partner organizations and performs volunteer recruitment, screening, and training. For more information contact Cory Derenburger, Program Specialist with Kitsap County.

Temporary Use Authorization for Severe Weather Shelters

To facilitate a quick response, two cities have adopted code provisions (see Kelso Municipal Code​ Ch. 8.26 and Longview Municipal Code Ch. 7.30) that authorize the issuance of  special temporary use permits specifically to allow the operation of severe weather shelters under certain conditions. Both cities define “severe weather shelter” to mean:

building(s) owned and/or operated by a religious establishment, fraternal organization, public agency or other entity that meets basic building safety standards for temporarily housing homeless persons as determined by the city’s building official and the city’s fire marshal

These provisions authorize the city manager or a designee to declare a severe weather event based upon defined weather-related criteria. The codes require that notice be given to local emergency service providers, police and fire departments, and social service organizations that serve the homeless to raise awareness of shelter availability.

Severe Weather Shelter Response Plan Model Template

If your city or county is interested in working with a local faith-based community or other nonprofit human service organization to start a severe weather shelter program, the severe weather shelter response plan model template developed by Washington County, Oregon, offers a good starting point. The template provides a detailed outline of the components of a shelter plan, including volunteer recruitment, building/facility amenities, shelter procedures, shelter staffing, and suggested forms and signs. The template also includes a list of steps involved in becoming a shelter provider, a model operations schedule, and basic position descriptions.

Questions? Comments?

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About Byron Katsuyama

Byron retired from MRSC in 2021. He wrote about forms of government, strategic planning, performance measurement, emerging issues, and general local government management.