Stevens County Commission teams up with prosecutor to issue homelessness fund money to Colville Warming Shelter

RaeLynn Ricarte

The Stevens County Commission and Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen came up with a plan last week to help the Community Warming Center in Colville get the financial aid it needs to provide shelter to the homeless on cold winter nights for the next year.

The issue of creating a more stable funding source was raised by John Horton, president of the Warming Center board. He told the elected officials at the Dec. 1 meeting that past county support had been set up on a reimbursement program. The problem, he said, was that it sometimes took several months to get reimbursed for funds that had been spent, which left members of Frank Starr American Legion Post 47 covering bills for the shelter out of their own pockets.

What exacerbated the problem, said Horton, was that social distancing and sanitation guidelines put in place by Gov. Jay Inslee and the state Department of Health had required the Legion to construct an upstairs bathroom so people could sleep there as well as the basement, which had traditionally been used for the shelter. That led to expenditures for building materials, as well as new costs and bedding, said Horton.

Loy Wilhelm, vice-president of the center board, told Rasmussen and the commissioners that Legion members were awaiting $12,000 in reimbursements and couldn't afford to take on any more expenses. Without an infusion of cash, he said it was unlikely the center could afford to stay open much longer.

“We're bottlenecked in terms of how much money we have,” he said.

After hearing the presentation by Horton and Wilhelm, Rasmussen recommended that Commissioners Wes McCart, Mark Burrows and Greg Young enter into a contract with the warming center to meet its needs for the remainder of 2020, and another contract to cover anticipated 2021 expenses. Rasmussen said the contracts would be run by the state auditor's office to ensure they met criteria for use of the homelessness fund, but that he anticipated there would be no problems.

“I think that is a solution that will satisfy everyone,” he said.

The commissioners unanimously approved that plan and Rasmussen anticipated the first contract would be signed this week.

Under the first contract, the center will receive $20,000 to use during the remainder of 2020. Next year, the contact ensures nearly $140,000 for operational costs, including volunteer stipends, a stipend for two administrators, and supplies.

“I think the simplest fix for everybody is to do this all at once,” said McCart.

He suggested that, due to the immediate need, the county tap a $100,000 contingency fund in the homelessness account for the $20,000 payment. He said the past commission had set up that fund for this type of situation because, otherwise, the request had to go through the regular budget process, which required published notice and a public hearing.

There is nearly a million dollars in the county's share of title fees collected in the state that must be used to get people off the streets and into transitional or permanent housing.

“This is the transfusion we really needed,” said Wilhelm after the meeting.

Horton said it was difficult to absorb the fact that Legion members would not have to stretch their own wallets to make things any longer.

“It's amazing and overwhelming — a real game changer for sure,” he said.

Horton said being able to give volunteers a stipend up to $60 for each shift provided stability to ensure that the doors could be open whenever the temperature dropped. In addition, he said the money they were paid was fed back into the community to aid the economy.

“This is all a little surreal,” he said.

The center will have to keep track of all the money it spends and Rasmussen suggested a meeting between all parties in May to see how the new program was working. Horton reassured county officials that warming center board members were good stewards of money and always tried to make a dollar stretch as far as possible. He said when COVID-19 was no longer a threat, there could be two volunteers on duty each night, which would lower costs, but the center had to plan for four in the immediate future because of social distancing needs.

He said Dr. Sam Artzis, health officer for Northeast Tri County Health District, had visited the center and provided 15-minute test kits for staff and guests. Everyone coming into the center will be masked and tested if they are running a fever before being allowed inside, he said. While the interim Stevens County Commission was conducting business in November, the warming center received $7,000 in federal stimulus dollars to use for expenses related to the COVID-19 crisis. Those funds, also allotted on a reimbursement basis, paid for the cots, deep cleaning in case there is a positive coronavirus case, new bedding and supplies.

Rasmussen asked Horton at the meeting what percentage of guests at the shelter were native to the area and was told about 99%. Horton said guests were not only homeless, but stranded motorists and people experiencing power outages or some other issue that required them to stay somewhere else temporarily. He said there could be up to 23 guests per night, although the number had been much lower thus far in 2020.

McCart, who has just begun his third time in office, recalled the commission being asked to help the family of a veteran after his car broke down. The family stayed at the shelter while arrangements were made with community partners to get their vehicle repaired. With a more stable budget, Horton said the center would be able to purchase a washer and dryer that were large enough to clean comforters and bigger loads of bedding.

There will also be money to stock shelves of food and keep sweats on hand in case guests need night attire. Although it is a relief to have the financial help, Horton said it was important for the warming center to continue its outreach efforts because there would always be more need than funds when it came to caring for individuals and families in crisis.

People interested in volunteering at the center, are invited to email or call 509-680-1518.