PORT ANGELES — Port Angeles City Manager Nathan West and Council Member Mike French spent a night at Serenity House of Clallam County’s night-by-night shelter where they learned about the challenges homeless people face in Port Angeles every day.
They said they became aware of some of the gaps in services that are available when Amy Miller and Shenna Younger spent a night at the shelter earlier this month, but getting first-hand experience overnight Thursday and talking with people who face homelessness was enlightening.
Younger and Miller challenged West and French to stay at the shelter so they can speak from experience during discussions about homelessness.
French said that when real homeless people learned that he and West were trying to get a taste of what they face each day, they often told the pair that what they should do is spend multiple days on the street and stay outside of the shelter. Many people opt not to stay at the shelter except when it is cold or there is extreme weather.
“I think they are kind of right,” French said. “We got a tiny glimpse into what it’s like but not really a true feeling for the experience these people have on a daily basis.”
French said Miller’s and Younger’s experience was what made him aware of the gap between when Serenity House closes and Salvation Army opens. Serenity House closes at about 5 a.m. each morning and the Salvation Army opens at 8 a.m.
French and West spent those hours Friday morning sitting against the wall of Salvation Army, trying to avoid the wind while waiting for the doors to open and for breakfast to be served.
“All these agencies are doing what they can do and they have the resources they have … but to have these gaps is a surprise,” French said. “There has to be a way to solve that because being out in the elements three hours every morning is stressful.”
West said he was struck by how well Serenity House’s night-by-night shelter is run and how evident it is that staff care about their guests.
“I really appreciate seeing things at the shelter,” West said. “The shelter staff really cared about the individuals and treated them like family — and people treat each other like family too.”
He said staff knew the names of people who came in and that he appreciated that they decorated for the holidays to give the shelter more of a feeling of a home.
West said that many of the people they talked to underscored the need for additional hours at the shelter, which opens at 8 p.m. and closes at 5 a.m., the need for public restrooms and people said they would like to see more funding put into shelters and facilities.
Many also said they want to work, but making that step is difficult.
One person suggested there should be volunteer opportunities that can lead to work and references that can help people get housing.
“I was surprised how constant a lot of that feedback was,” French said. “They are all talking about the same constellation of issues and barriers,” French said.
West said he and French intend to use their experience to inform ways in which the city can step up to help address the issue.
While he didn’t have specifics, West said coming up with solutions will require creative thinking and said he is looking forward to continued talks with Serenity House as the city comes up with ideas.
“I think ultimately I can say with certainty there’s going to be a lot of people around the community that want to talk with us and talk to others who have had that experience and have discussions,” West said. “I think ultimately those discussions will be important to inform people and inform what needs are not being covered right now.”
French said he anticipated there being discussion about their experience at the Port Angeles City Council meeting Tuesday.
West and French said they were continuing the discussion by challenging Sequim officials to spend a night on the streets as well.
Sequim City Manager Charlie Bush said he and others at the city accept the challenge and look forward to the experience.
Bush said the city of Sequim has been looking at ways to address homelessness and said that the experience will only help the city identify the gaps.
“The city of Sequim has been studying homelessness and human service and improving policy and the way we fund those areas,” Bush said. “We’re always trying to learn more.”
He said that Sequim officials will start their experience in Sequim and will likely take public transit to get to Serenity House.
He said that getting from Sequim to Serenity House is something that would be difficult for the city’s homeless population and it’s something he wants to experience himself.
“Any time you can walk in someone’s shoes, it’s valuable and gives you a different perspective,” Bush said.
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected].