EDITOR’S NOTE: The hours of the shelter in the American Legion Hall basement have been corrected.
PORT TOWNSEND — For Lisa Anderson, it feels good to be housed, sober — and, now, employed.
Anderson is a staff monitor at the Winter Welcoming Center, which opened a couple of weeks ago in the waterfront Pope Marine Building just in time for the snowstorm.
“I was homeless until not too long ago,” Anderson said Tuesday, as she organized the center’s tables full of swag: cloth masks, hand warmers, sanitizer.
The Welcoming Center, open from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. seven days a week — longer during severe weather — provides a place to use wi-fi and a restroom, charge a cellphone and just get out of the cold.
The Jefferson Interfaith Action Coalition (JIAC), a group of congregations from around the city, established the center two winters ago in a narrow building near the Sea Breeze Gas & Grocery on West Sims Way.
“With COVID, it’s a whole different ballgame,” said Anderson, and the Pope Marine Building, which is about twice as big, works well for social distancing.
Up to 18 people can share the space while staying far enough apart — and to add to the benefit, the city of Port Townsend is giving the JIAC the place rent-free.
People need a place to sit quietly and not be admonished for loitering, Anderson said.
The winter shelter in the American Legion Hall basement is open 24 hours a day every day, but guests may want to get out of the windowless space and come to the Welcoming Center, which looks out on the water.
So far, though, too few are finding the center at the Pope Marine. Word of mouth needs to reach “the people on the margins, the people who are tucked away,” said First Presbyterian Church pastor Paul Heins.
He works with the Methodist, Catholic, Jewish, Lutheran, Episcopal, Quaker and Unitarian Universalist congregations to operate and help fund the place. It will stay open into April or as long as it needs to, Heins said.
He’d welcome creative solutions to the Welcoming Center’s challenges, which include the fact that no coffee or tea can be sipped inside the building, and no food eaten. Pandemic-induced protocols preclude all that.
A nearby coffee shop has expressed interest in providing vouchers for guests, Heins said.
In the past, the Welcoming Center has offered laundry vouchers and bus passes. The latter aren’t needed this year, since Jefferson Transit buses are fare-free during the pandemic.
Julia Cochrane, a member of the Welcoming Center steering committee, came down Tuesday morning to greet monitors and guests.
“We do have the most gorgeous location in town,” she said as the sun shone and the Washington State Ferry glided past on Port Townsend Bay.
Cochrane noted that individual donations and support from the Jefferson Community Foundation have helped fund the center’s expenses: insurance and two staff monitors each day.
Other than the Pope Marine Building, “there’s legally nowhere to go to sit and be warm,” she said.
People without homes used to be able to go to the public library or the Penny Saver market or the Food Co-op to escape harsh weather and hard concrete, but such places have closed their spaces for sitting.
Anderson said she used to go to Kah Tai Lagoon during the day after she spent nights at the shelter. She got sober a year ago, and “it’s very, very hard to rebuild,” she said.
The Welcoming Center is a place with no judgment or unsolicited advice, Anderson added. Together with co-monitor Jeannette Mead, she keeps the space tidy — “we both like to clean, and that helps” — and hopes more unhoused people find out about it.
“Guests can bring their dogs here, as long as they’re on a leash” and well-behaved, Mead said.
“[Donated] tents and tarps are a huge need,” she added, along with coats, socks and gloves.
Heins summed up the center’s mission: “It doesn’t matter who you are or what your situation is,” he said, “we want to make it as warm as possible, and as safe as possible.
“Having it sponsored by an interfaith coalition is meaningful to me personally,” the pastor added. People have come out of their congregational silos because, he said, “we have a heart to work together.”
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected]