PORT TOWNSEND — The Jefferson County Winter Shelter in the basement of the American Legion Post No. 26 building is already at capacity and is seeing an increase in the number of seniors that need housing.
Throughout the summer the average age of the 10 women who stayed at the overnight shelter was 63 and at any given time two women were older than 70, said Mike Johnson, shelter manager.
“Right now we have four people over 70,” he said Wednesday as clients were preparing for dinner. “It’s our highest growing population.”
The Community Outreach Association Shelter Team has partnered with Olympic Community Action Programs for 14 years now in operating the shelter in the basement of the American Legion building at 209 Monroe St.
Usually the shelter opens Nov. 1, but this year it opened Oct. 22 and will remain open until April 15. Its hours are 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. Identification is required.
The shelter has 12 beds for women, 20 beds for men and two sick rooms, meaning it can serve 34 people total each night.
Johnson said for many that use the shelter now they were just one paycheck away from being homeless before something happened. Some have lost their source of income, lost a spouse or experienced other difficulties.
With the housing crunch in the area paired with the high cost of housing, some have nowhere else to go, Johnson said.
“It breaks my heart,” said Kathy Morgan, housing and community development director for OlyCAP. “It’s sad that our community can’t do better for them.”
Morgan and Johnson both emphasized that no two clients have the same story and that everyone’s situation is different.
“Over the years now we’re seeing not your typical homeless population that you think about; we’re seeing a lot of seniors,” Morgan said. “They had houses, they had a life, kids, but what happens is their spouse dies and they don’t have a second income and housing prices have priced them out where they can’t afford to live in their own house.”
As it gets colder the need will only increase, but there’s only a limited number of beds.
Morgan said when it becomes freezing or there is snow out, the shelter often will put up cots to get the most vulnerable off the streets.
They also allow people to go inside just to warm up. Johnson said it becomes difficult when there are more than 30 people who need help because there are only two shelter monitors.
“It’s really hard, especially when you look at someone and you can just tell they are having a hard time,” he said, adding that the number of beds is limited due to safety concerns. “The more people that are in here, the more things are going to happen and the less we can keep an eye out for things.”
Overall though, he said there are typically few issues.
“The good news is that pretty much everybody in here is really good and they want to help,” he said. “They want to make this their home for the time they are here.”
Johnson said that even though the shelter is at capacity, the goal is to help its current clients find housing — making room for others in need.
Staff work with clients to identify what barriers they have to finding housing. For some its lack of money, a previous eviction or a criminal record, he said.
“We will work with them one at a time,” he said. “Our goal is to make sure everybody gets housing and that they are ready for that.”
Johnson said the shelter is always in need of paper supplies and would appreciate donations. People who want to donate supplies can stop by the shelter between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., he said.
The shelter is also looking for additional shelter monitors. To apply for those positions visit olycap.org.
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected].