PORT ANGELES — Being homeless in Port Angeles is far from easy, a reality that becomes chillingly clear at about 5 a.m. every morning.
Many people are left in the cold with no place to go and to them it seems that no matter where they go, people want them to go somewhere else.
Amy Miller, who heads the REdisCOVERY Program of Volunteers in Medicine of the Olympics (VIMO), and Shenna Younger, VIMO’s director of Development and Operations, experienced this first-hand when they spent Wednesday night at Serenity House of Clallam County’s night-by-night shelter and attempted to stay warm after the shelter closed at 5 the next morning as the temperature dipped to 27 degrees.
“There’s a perception that our community makes things too easy, but I’m telling you that’s not true,” Younger said shortly after getting dropped off near the Salvation Army at 206 S. Peabody St., by a Serenity House van at about 6 a.m.
“It is not easy. It’s not.”
Miller and Younger started their experience at about 5 p.m. Wednesday before making their way to the Serenity House shelter at 2321 W. 18th St., where they had dinner and breakfast, and ended at about 8:15 a.m. Thursday after having a second breakfast at Salvation Army.
They live-streamed updates on their Facebook accounts about what they were experiencing; people watching lauded their efforts and told them to stay safe.
They spent much of their time attempting to stay warm as they talked with people who live on the streets every day.
Among the people they talked with was Mike Hollingsworth, who said he has been homeless for four years and is injured and unable to work.
Hollingsworth said on most nights he doesn’t stay at Serenity House’s night-by-night shelter, but on cold nights, like Wednesday, he is happy to have a warm place to go.
Serenity House, which served 47 people Wednesday night, has a van that picks people up near the Salvation Army before the shelter opens at 8 p.m.
When it’s cold, staff will sometimes open the doors early.
The shelter closes at around 5 a.m. and people are shuttled via Serenity House’s van back to Second and Peabody Streets near Salvation Army, which opens at 8 a.m.
“They wake you up at 4 a.m. by 6 a.m. you’re downtown,” Hollingsworth said. “There’s nothing open and it’s cold.”
During those three hours between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. many people wander the streets, walking to try to stay warm, or go to a nearby Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
Hollingsworth said the stage at City Pier is a good spot because it is covered, though there is little shelter from the wind.
“There’s no wind protection, but it’s not on the freezing cement,” he said. “If you’re wet, that’s an- other nightmare.”
He said people typically go to covered places such as Veterans Memorial Park and areas along the waterfront.
Hollingsworth said he understands Serenity House has financial constraints that limit its hours, but wishes the hours were longer.
“I don’t know all the rules they have to deal with, but I’m sure they do,” Hollingsworth said.
Younger and Miller said that the gap in the morning when there was nowhere to go was probably the most difficult part of their experience.
“I think that if there wasn’t this gap in the morning, if somehow the shelter had more funding and could stay open until the Salvation Army opens, or vice versa, that might really help,” Younger said.
“We’ve met people who that would help. Walking around in this cold for three hours, it’s not good physically and it’s not good psychologically.”
Serenity House reopened its overnight shelter in October, after closing it for lack of funds, when a group of churches, partnered with United Way of Clallam County, pulled together $34,000. That funding was enough to reopen the shelter, but was not enough to keep it running through the end of the year. Clallam County has provided $40,000 to keep the shelter going.
Two hours of sleep
Miller, who works with the city’s homeless population through the REdisCOVERY program, wasn’t surprised by what she experienced, but said her stay at the shelter was difficult nonetheless.
They stayed in a small co-ed room with eight cots, each with a top and bottom bunk; Miller took the top bunk.
They were able to sleep for only two hours due to the noises and smells that are produced when many people are crammed into a small room and in the morning they learned that that’s not unusual.
“It wasn’t just because it was our first time that we didn’t sleep,” Miller said. “Most folks were saying about two to three hours of sleep.”
Younger learned that people who are trying to catch some sleep in the streets during the day in many cases had little sleep the night before.
“They have pretty harsh judgments and people assume they are dozing off because they are high, but that’s not the case at all,” she said. “They are dozing off because they finally got warm.”
Miller, who has been to other shelters, said she was impressed with the staff and how well run the night-by-night shelter is.
“The staff was really nice to us and welcoming and the guests were curious about what we were doing,” Miller said.
Manny Aybar, director of shelter services for Serenity House, said he was happy to see Miller and Younger raising awareness about homelessness in Port Angeles, saying one of the biggest issues people face is the stigma that comes with living on the streets.
“Any effort that works to reduce that stigma, to reduce that misconception of homelessness as an ‘other,’ is wonderful,” Aybar said.
“The more we can do to bring a positive light to the work of all of our agencies and to our public opinion to reduce the stigma of being homeless, will only help our clients reach permanent housing quicker, be more self-sufficient, and have more recovery and embrace whatever process of wellness they are following.”
What Miller and Younger found is that once they explained why they were staying overnight at the shelter, many of the guests there not only were willing to talk about their experiences, but also they were eager to have their voices heard.
That was surprising, she said.
A topic that many people expressed concern about is the availability of restrooms. Many people are prohibited from going to Safeway, which is open all night, and the people who are allowed there say they feel judged because they look homeless.
“There’s no place to go to the bathroom,” Hollingsworth said. “You can’t go to the bus stop. Why don’t they keep the bathrooms open until the last bus leaves?”
He said the restrooms at The Gateway transit center close during the early evening, even while buses are still running.
In lieu of public restrooms, some go to the woods; others use public places.
Veterans Memorial Park
Before going to Serenity House, Miller and Younger spent about an hour at Veterans Memorial Park, where many in the homeless population have faced criticism for vandalism, especially vandalism of the Liberty Bell replica.
Graffiti, trash and human waste at Veterans Memorial Park was discussed last month during a public comment period at the Port Angeles City Council. As a result, a committee was formed to find ways to address the issues.
Also Serenity House, which had made the park a pickup point for its van, transporting an average of 34 clients per day, switched to the Salvation Army. But many still seek shelter at the park.
“The people that we talked to have the exact same opinion on what’s happening at the bell,” Younger said. “They are concerned and they want the bell to be preserved for the purpose it’s intended.”
The Clallam County Veterans Association hosts a bell-ringing ceremony at Veterans Memorial Park on the last Friday of every month to honor local veterans who have died.
Among the people Miller and Younger talked with was Susan, who said she is from a military family and whose husband lost his leg in Vietnam.
Susan, who did not want her last name published, stayed at Serenity House’s night-by-night shelter Wednesday and said she has lived on the streets since she was 12.
Susan, and many others, expressed frustration at how a handful of people are treating the park. Some who seek shelter at the park said a fence would help prevent the vandalism, though people would then need to find another place to go.
“The memorial is my biggest gripe,” she said. “That’s for the men who gave their lives. I feel they disrespect that place. It’s wrong.”
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected].