An extreme winter weather shelter for people experiencing homelessness will open in Toppenish Monday.
The nightly shelter will be set up in a building owned by Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, and it will provide safe and warm overnight shelter for about 45 individuals through the end of March.
It will have individual tents for each man or woman – with 6 feet of spacing in between, per public health guidelines amid the pandemic, and drop down barriers between them, said Mike Kay, CEO of Camp Hope of Yakima, which will operate the shelter.
Daily COVID-19 safety precautions will take place upon entry to the shelter. Five or six additional isolation beds will be available in light of the pandemic.
Nightly dinners and additional services like case management, housing, mental health and substance abuse referral services also will be offered.
The effort is possible due to the support of the city of Toppenish, the Yakama Nation’s Village of Hope, Sunrise Outreach Center and the Yakima County Human Services Division, according to Kay.
And this year, there’s a big need, said Kay.
Prior to the pandemic, Yakima County already had a high portion of low-income families. In 2019, 16.7% of people in the county were considered to be living in poverty, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
On top of that, Kay said, the cost of housing is high locally. With the additional burden of the pandemic, he said, the county is seeing more homeless people in Yakima.
“On the streets. My shelter (in Yakima) is at capacity. Union Gospel Mission is at capacity. And we haven’t even hit the (end of) the rental moratorium,” said Kay. “We’re seeing a lot of people that are homeless that weren’t previously homeless.”
Yakima Union Gospel Mission CEO Mike Johnson echoed him. The mission’s shelters are at capacity – but the organization is doing everything it can to meet any additional needs, getting creative to provide more shelter beyond capacity, he said.
In Toppenish alone, the need is apparent.
Last winter, Camp Hope was served meals to roughly 35 people that said they were experiencing homelessness. This year, he said, there are upwards of 95.
“We were just really blown away,” Kay said. “We just felt really called to do something, and we’re just really grateful that we were able to find people that want to collaborate and partner with us.”
This past June, Camp Hope saw a dramatic decline in funding from the county’s homeless program, which it relies on – down from about $475,000 annually to $304,250 a year over a two-year cycle. This created a lot of uncertainty about what services could be provided.
Still, Kay said the organization was determined to find a way to make a winter shelter in Toppenish happen. He said it was something that was heavy on the hearts of Camp Hope staff as well as the city of Toppenish and the Toppenish City Council.
Several entities came together to make it happen.
Farm Workers offered a building once again, and invested $15,000 toward the effort. The organization upgraded heating to keep people warmer and offered more space to make the set-up COVID-19 friendly.
County commissioners and the human services department also pursued grant funding to help, securing $40,000 for the shelter.
The Yakama Nation’s Village of Hope also offered support, and Sunrise Outreach Center will coordinate meals, Kay said. Camp Hope will staff the site.
“It’s an all-hands-on-deck type of thing,” he said. “It’s been really awesome to see that much collaboration to take care of a total stranger.”
At this point, the shelter is just for nights — meaning people at the shelter are meant to leave in the morning. But Kay hopes that with some additional support, that could change, enabling them to staff and insure it for 24 hours. Another $20,000 would make the difference.
“When people don’t have to leave and go out in the weather, they’re less likely to self-medicate and so on,” he said. “We’re opening Monday overnight, but we’re still … looking for grants. Anything we can get our hands on to make that happen.”
The shelter will be at 508 W. First Ave. in Toppenish.