Some shelters require people to be sober and mentally stable before they get a mat on a floor. A shelter proposed for Yakima’s new shelter would accept people who are drunk, high or experiencing a mental health crisis.
People would not be able to use drugs or alcohol once they enter the shelter but they won’t be turned away if they’re intoxicated. It’s what shelter providers call “low-barrier,” meaning they impose as few restrictions as possible.
Yakima is the latest in a series of Washington cities pursuing low-barrier shelters. Staff members at Interfaith Works, a nonprofit service provider, are seeking space for a shelter in Olympia. Love Overwhelming, a faith-based nonprofit, has plans for a shelter in Longview or Kelso in Cowlitz County.
All three proposals are based on a “shelter first” model, which contends that people must first have shelter before they can address issues like mental health, chemical addiction, criminal background or employment.
People who cannot enter the other shelters have a much harder time escaping homelessness, said Tim Sullivan, senior manager of housing and homelessness programs for the Yakima County Department of Human Services.
“We don’t have a place for people to get out of the elements, to even have the opportunity to think about getting services or help,” he said.
In January, the most recent point-in-time count, volunteers found 47 people living outdoors and 220 in emergency shelter in the county.
Low-barrier shelters are not a new idea, but across the country, the concept is growing in popularity. Steve Berg, vice president for policy and programs at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said low-barrier shelters are an essential component of homeless services.
“It’s not like every shelter needs to be low-barrier,” Berg said. “But if you don’t have it in the community, you’re going to have big problems.”
Seattle and King County have long operated several shelters that are low-barrier, although they are not necessarily identified as such.
“There are plenty of places that are effectively low-barrier,” said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. “They take people as they come, but they don’t necessarily advertise that.”
The bigger issue, Eisinger said, is capacity. Many shelters are full.
Capacity is also an issue in Yakima. Yakima County hosts two permanent shelters and one emergency shelter that rotates through churches during the winter. The proposed low-barrier shelter would replace the cold-weather shelter.
Some homeless people are reluctant to go to existing shelters because they are run by religious organizations, said Tamara Wanner, an outreach worker for Central Washington Comprehensive Mental Health.
Having a permanent shelter where anyone can lie down for the night will make a difference, she said. Wanner searches greenbelts and even islands in the middle of Yakima River to find people when they are due for an appointment, such as with the Social Security Administration.
With a low-barrier shelter, she would be able to find many of her 50 clients in one space.
“The plan isn’t just to provide shelter,” Wanner said. “The plan is to provide a robust service that starts with shelter.”
Yakima County has committed $350,000 to operate the shelter for the first two years, and is pursuing grants to pay to remodel whichever building eventually houses the shelter at an estimated cost of $2 million.
Funded by Yakima County and operated by Yakima Neighborhood Health Services, the permanent shelter will house 60 people in bunk beds. It will also feature a full cafeteria, showers, laundry and space for other services.
The new shelter will be transitional, Sullivan said. The plan is to move people out of the shelter and into permanent housing.
The plan represents a different approach by Yakima leaders. Just a year ago, the Yakima City Council was clamping down on emergency winter shelters, Sullivan said. The Yakima City Council opposed allowing emergency winter shelters to continue operating in area churches until the buildings were outfitted with sprinkler systems.
Since then, the council reversed course and now supports a permanent shelter under the notion that helping homeless people will also help the city’s plans to redevelop its downtown core.
“They realized that they’re not going to be able to change the image of Yakima or fix anything without dealing with [homeless people],” Sullivan said.