Lewis County Residents Weigh Pros and Cons of Proposed Night-by-Night Shelter

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A 2018 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which includes Western Washington, determined it was unconstitutional for cities to enforce laws against sleeping and camping in public places unless the city had enough homeless shelter beds available for their homeless population.

The U.S. Supreme Court later left the decision intact by declining to hear an appeal of the case, called Martin v. The City of Boise.

Lewis County Commissioner Sean Swope said he thinks bringing a homeless shelter to the county is therefore a matter of public safety, adding that as it stands, “if someone wanted to pitch a tent at the library,” they could. Swope said he’s hoping after the establishment of a shelter, the county will “work with the cities and have them do different ordinances that will help allow our law enforcement to do their job more effectively.”

To aid in the county’s decision and planning on the matter, members of the public were invited to the Blue Pavilion at the fairgrounds on Thursday night to discuss the pros and cons of a “night-by-night shelter” coming to Lewis County.

Night-by-night shelters are a form of emergency housing that open each afternoon and close in the mornings. They offer food, showers and a place to sleep. The specifics of a proposed shelter in Lewis County, including capacity, eligibility for guests and location, have not been determined.

The forum was a chance for county officials to suss out the public’s views on the topic in a pros and cons format, according to Lewis County Manager Erik Martin, as opposed to simply asking whether or not residents desire the shelter.

Facilitated by Lewis County Special Projects Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Eric Eisenberg — who is on assignment by the county to study and address the local housing crisis — the forum was split into individual reflection, small group discussions and a full group workshop. Attendees were asked not to enter public debate, but were encouraged to address any unheard concerns in a survey after the forum.

The event was attended by around 70 people, including city and county officials, residents, business owners and service providers, including Tricia Zeise from the Lewis County Gospel Mission, Gin Pack and Steven Pack from the Salvation Army Centralia and Patty Howard of Gather Church. 

Problems and Benefits

After discussions, groups were asked to choose one major issue, negative or positive, to write on a notecard that would be placed on a bulletin board of either problems or benefits.

Kayla Snodgrass, a resident who recently moved from Portland, spoke to represent a group with Zeise, present staff from the Salvation Army and Shona Smith from Shona’s Food Company in Chehalis. 

The group’s top concern was “over-servicing.”

“We have some unique opinions at this table,” Snodgrass said. “I moved here a few months ago from Portland and I’ve seen firsthand the problems surrounding over-servicing and people being stuck in a cycle of needing more services, attract more homeless, and then you need more services. And it’s never-ending.”

Among other problems on the cards were: “security (drugs-weapon control),” “mental medical services need to follow through,” “what about families w/ children,” “stigma,” “ accommodating pets necessary” and “lower property values.”

Meja Handlen, deputy director of social services and operations for the county’s public health department, spoke up about the negatives of stigma pertaining to the asset-limited, income-constrained but employed (ALICE) population of Lewis County. 

Those folks, who may be living in their cars or elsewhere, may be reluctant to stay at a homeless shelter for fear of how they would be perceived, Handlen said, which was listed as a con.

“Because they’re proud people. We are a proud community. People who are in that category don’t want the stigma of going to a shelter for ‘those people,’” Handlen said. 

On the other hand, one group’s representative said if the county had the ability to give people a place to sleep at night, then the shelter was a “moral imperative.”

Annalee Tobey, executive director of Experience Chehalis (formerly the Chehalis Community Renaissance Team), spoke as the representative from a group with Chehalis City Manager Jill Anderson and Chehalis Mayor Tony Ketchum. The group’s choice was a benefit, Tobey said, that a shelter “allows laws to be enforced.” 

“Right now … we can’t move folks along if they are loitering and trespassing and actually being unlawful. With the addition of a shelter, we will be able to have folks go (there),” Tobey said. 

Other positives listed on cards included: “reduce costs to health care and emergency management,” “place to sleep out of elements,” “safe place for vulnerable population” and “shows we care about our community members experiencing homelessness.”

Takeaways

The problems and benefits discussed Thursday, according to a news release from the county, will be outlined by Lewis County Public Health & Social Services when it creates a request for proposals for the shelter.

According to Eisenberg, the applicant will have to adequately demonstrate how it can uphold the community’s desired benefits and combat the possible negatives.

Establishing the shelter was one action item passed recently by the Board of County Commissioners as part of the Lewis County Housing Initiative.

“There were a few other ones (concerns) that made me think, ‘Yeah, we do need to think through that better. For instance, the kid part. You definitely want to protect your kids,” Swope said, adding later that overall he is in favor of the shelter because: “With the legislation that has been passed and what our law enforcement is able to do and what they aren’t able to do, this helps them to be able to create a greater public safety net around our communities. So I think this is a vital piece. But it has to be done right. It has to be put in the right location.”

Read more on the Lewis County Housing Initiative here: https://lewiscountywa.gov/offices/commissioners/housing-initiative/.