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In Clark County, coronavirus pandemic shows that ‘housing is health care’

In a way, it’s still winter — at least when it comes to the seasonal shelter system. Some wintertime shelter facilities in Clark County remain open due to COVID-19. The Winter Hospitality Overflow shelter serving families at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Orchards is open but at reduced capacity to promote social distancing. Also, the nonprofit Outsiders Inn took over operating the men’s homeless shelter at St. Paul Lutheran Church in downtown Vancouver.

“It’s never been more evident housing is health care,” said Laura Ellsworth, strategic partnerships manager at Council for the Homeless. “The pandemic has really shone a spotlight on some inequities in our society.”

Getting people inside where they can stay clean, she said, lowers their risk of contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Aside from the coronavirus pandemic, it was a typical cold and wet Northwest winter. While local winters are often described as mild, Ellsworth said 42 degrees and raining isn’t mild to someone who’s living outside. The shelter season kicked off early when temperatures dipped around Halloween.

There were 49 times Council for the Homeless announced severe weather, meaning temperatures dropped below freezing or there was snow or freezing rain in the forecast. It prompted the opening of overnight severe weather shelters around the county in addition to the regular Winter Hospitality Overflow shelters.

A local severe weather task force was formed after a 2017 snowstorm that resulted in several deaths among homeless people in Portland. Since then the severe weather shelter system has been finding its rhythm. (According to Clark County Public Health, the last probable hypothermia death here was in February 2019. It is not known whether the deceased was homeless.)

It was challenging to staff shelters with volunteers, especially toward the end of winter as the coronavirus situation ramped up, Ellsworth said. Nonprofit homeless service provider Share has been running the shelter at St. Andrew. Severe weather shelters opened based on their own capacity and guidelines.

One of those shelters was located at the Washougal Community Center. Bob Barber, who coordinates the shelter as chair of ReFuel Washougal, said the shelter averaged seven or eight people nightly. Over the winter it provided 83 “safe sleeps,” each representing a safe night of sleep for an individual.

“This season went real smooth. We didn’t have any major issues,” said Barber, who is also the pastor at St. Matthew Lutheran Church.

Being in a small city, the Washougal shelter benefited from several partnerships. The Salvation Army in Washougal, for instance, opened its day center early whenever the overnight shelter was open. The Camas-Washougal Community Chest provided a grant to buy waterproof sleeping bags rated for -15 degrees for guests to use on nights they weren’t at the shelter.

“It’s become an amazing community effort to help those in need in Camas and Washougal,” Barber said.

This summer, the Washougal Community Center will open as a cooling center on days where there is a heat advisory.

“Heat is more deadly for folks than cold,” Ellsworth said.

Currently, the typical places Council for the Homeless and outreach workers often suggest unhoused people go to escape the heat (community centers, libraries and Vancouver Mall) are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The severe weather task force is figuring out how to open cooling centers this summer.


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