The city’s severe weather shelter is the old Chamber of Commerce building next to Renton Municipal Airport. It had 433 guests from Feb. 3 to Feb. 13 during the snow event. On Thursday, Feb. 28, someone in Renton was continuing to seek shelter as they slept outside of the building.
                                Photo by Haley Ausbun.

The city’s severe weather shelter is the old Chamber of Commerce building next to Renton Municipal Airport. It had 433 guests from Feb. 3 to Feb. 13 during the snow event. On Thursday, Feb. 28, someone in Renton was continuing to seek shelter as they slept outside of the building. Photo by Haley Ausbun.

Snow storm reveals more shelter needs for Renton

City staff are talking of possibly using other city buildings in the events of severe weather, similar to Seattle.

The snow in February put an unprecedented strain on the severe weather shelter and its resources. The shelter was open from Feb. 3 to Feb. 13 for 11 nights, with 433 guests.

This is the first time they were regularly over the 30 person limit, Renton Human Resources Manager Guy Williams said. On Feb. 8, they nearly doubled capacity with 55 guests.

They supplied folks with 30 mats to sleep on. When that ran out, people sat in chairs or in corners.

Dan Wise, director of homeless services for the group that runs the shelter, said it was about survival at that point, even if it was uncomfortable to house that many folks.

“What do you do when someone comes to your door, and it’s 17 degrees behind them with a foot of snow?” Williams said.

Williams looked to Seattle’s practices in the storm as a possible model for the next event. He thought the opening of Garfield and Bitter Lake community centers as weather shelters was “perfectly done.”

The dire needs shown in Renton has led city staff to consider a similar program to Seattle’s use of community centers.

Williams said they started conversations last week about using the Senior Activity Center in the next severe weather event.

If they anticipated a large need, they would be able to use the senior center as additional space, he said.

Renton’s current low-barrier shelter

Renton doesn’t run shelters, they provide the space and then contract out the operations to other groups, such as Catholic Community Services. Staff for the activity center would come from those contracts.

While the senior activity center is not officially decided yet, there’s other changes the city may need to look at as well to take care of unsheltered folks in Renton.

There are certainly lessons to be learned and explored, Williams said. That includes the need for additional funds and preparing for a day center if daytime conditions are severe.

The city spent $6,600 running the night shelter, and Williams went and purchased food, cleaning supplies, utilities and toilet paper for about $500.

Another $500 total in day staff costs were covered by St. Matthews church.

The severe weather facility didn’t turn anyone away, per direction of Community Catholic Services who runs Renton’s shelter. Wise said it was most important folks were safe and indoors.

While they weren’t prepared for the length of the storm, Williams said he believed they were successful in handling it.

He said it was likely a combination of severe weather, and more people in Renton needing low-barrier shelter. In previous years, the longest it had ever opened was four consecutive nights.

She also had concerns getting staff to and from the location, Wise said. Community Catholic Services staffed the building with two people and volunteers from local churches.

One staff member stayed at a hotel near the site in order to work on the days where snow shut down roads. Only volunteers who were able to make it, came in.

Williams also said people donated food and blankets throughout the Renton.

Space is divided by men, families, and women and children. Thirty regulars came every night, Williams said.

Space and conditions of the shelter became tenuous, as folks stayed for longer than ever at the old chamber building.

Some had incidents with drug use, but once police were involved it became minimum, Williams said.

Records from Valley Communications Center show five 911 calls from the address of the severe weather shelter during the open days in February, ranging from staff asking someone to vacate, to possible heroin use in the bathroom. One person staying called 911 because they didn’t have medication they needed and were having a serious reaction.

Then when the shelter run ended, folks staying were provided bus tokens to find other shelters outside of the city, including Garfield Community Center.

Williams said he wanted to emphasize the help of local volunteers. About a dozen volunteers from REACH’s meal coalition assisted with the severe weather shelter. They also washed blankets and provided bus tokens when the building closed.

“A model to mimic:” Garfield Community Center

The decision to open community centers as shelters came from emergency management operation center for the city of Seattle, parks and recreation department spokesperson Rachel Schulkin said.

The department then selected Garfield Community Center for its central location and emergency operation functions, like backup generators. The center was open as a shelter day and night.

The staff there aren’t trained in this type of shelter management, Schulkin said. They are trained to operate as a shelter in the event of something like a natural disaster.

This was the first time the building had been used this way. Classes and events for seniors and youth were canceled, but would have been due to snow anyways.

Garfield ran as a shelter past the snowstorm, until Feb. 22.

In terms of code compliance, the only thing Schulkin said she knew of was the Seattle fire department taking a look at the center in the early days of sheltering.

Since talks are preliminary in Renton, it’s hard to say how many similarities Seattle’s opening of Garfield would have to Renton using the Senior Activity Center as a shelter.

Williams has said it’s a model they’re considering, while acknowledging Seattle has a different resources than other King County cities.

In an interview from King 5, one Seattle attendee said they may not have survived without Garfield opening its doors. Somewhere between 80 to 140 people stayed per night, Schulkin said.

When not in an emergency, community centers pay a vital role in people’s lives, she said. But they can also be a resource in these situations.

In terms of other cities considering this use, Schulkin said these are difficult choices that require a lot of local input and careful deliberation.

Moving beyond temporary shelter for homeless

While Renton city staff decide how to help people experiencing homelessness in dire weather, Wise said the city should also consider a year-round response to homelessness.

She said 55 people coming off the streets to engage in services, strikes to the need in Renton.

Renton folks in poverty have a lot of compounding disabilities that make it harder for them to engage in services, Wise said. Year-round assistance would be a significant leap forward for the city, which has no 24/7 programs for people who are homeless, the major shelters being REACH Center of Hope for women and children, and ARISE for men.

“I’m not saying don’t respond when weather hits,” she said. “It’s a good motivation to connect with folks, it’s just building upon that connection and ensuring you can provide that consistent care.”

Wise also mentioned ARISE has great outcomes, but is a night-only shelter. The ARISE program did open a few days for men to stay as well, during the snowstorm.

ARISE program is through Catholic Community Services and moves to a different Renton church each month. During the storm, Saint Anthony’s in Renton was hosting for February. They intake about 22 men who have interviews for enrollment. The maximum intake at Saint Anthony’s was 25.

REACH Center of Hope didn’t intake any new residents from the 55 regulars in the snow, but they did offer 10 additional spots that nobody applied for. The intake has to be done before 2 p.m. for a family to get in the same night. The center has day and night shifts.

“The city has been a great partner in getting us spaces, and responsive to assuring (ARISE) has somewhere in Renton,” Wise said. “As we plan for the future, we need to look at how we’re going to work with folks who end up on our streets.”

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