PORT ANGELES — Michelle Descharne walks each night to Serenity House of Clallam County’s night-by-night shelter on the west end of Port Angeles looking for a safe place to sleep.
The former registered nurse and recovering alcoholic said Tuesday she is using the shelter as a stepping stone as she works to rebuild her life — but that stepping stone could soon be pulled out from under her.
Serenity House is warning it could close its night-by-night shelter May 15 unless it finds $200,000, which Executive Director Doc Robinson believes should come from Clallam County and the community. That funding also would support the family shelter, which already has stopped accepting new clients.
The single adult clean and sober recovery shelter also has stopped taking clients.
Robinson said that was because the program was denied Chemical Dependency and Mental Health funding from the county that Robinson said “could be restored with a wave of a hand.”
The three shelters currently serve 245 adults and 21 children who would likely be on the street if it wasn’t for each of the programs, he said.
The decision to close the shelters left Serenity House’s board members with more questions than answers during their board meeting Tuesday night.
“What do we tell our clients as they are put in the street?” asked Gloria Kohler, board member.
Serenity House sees its overnight shelters as a form of triage, where it can provide a safe environment and gain the trust of clients who often are reluctant to ask for help, Robinson said.
Serenity House often begins the process of getting people into permanent housing, the nonprofit’s ultimate goal, when people stay at the overnight shelters. It’s a process that takes time, Descharne said.
“There are processes you have to go through and … we need some place to sleep,” she said. “The community is great for helping people, but closing this down is going to be the worst thing for this county.”
Robinson handed out announcements to all who attended Serenity House’s board meeting Tuesday night — which county Commissioner Randy Johnson attended.
Several county officials, including Johnson, said they were unaware Serenity House would announce the closure of the night-by-night shelter that currently sees about 30 people each night.
“Serenity House simply cannot afford to continue to shield Clallam County shelter clients from the lack of local government financial support and investment in their welfare,” Robinson wrote in the statement.
Johnson told the Serenity House board Tuesday night the county doesn’t have the money to fund all the agencies requesting funds and that it works to spread out the little funds it has as best it can.
“My letters to the editor are going to say ‘shame on Clallam County,’ ” Kohler said. “The employees sitting in this room have stretched themselves beyond humanly possible and to me this is a very sad day and the only hope we have is for the county to stand up and take the responsibility they have. The county is our last hope.”
This year 11 different agencies asked for a combined $936,587 out of the county’s Homeless Fund, a fund paid for though recording fees. There was only $409,000 available.
“The requests to the county are way, way, way more and will always be more than what we have funding for,” Johnson said Wednesday. “There’s no way to get around that.”
Serenity House was given $18,000 to help repair floors in the adult and family shelters and $128,000 for its Housing Resource Centers and shelter. It total, it received about a third of the $406,546 it had asked for.
It wasn’t enough to keep operations going past May 15, Robinson said. The night-by-night shelter costs $163,000 each year; the family shelter costs $120,000 each year; and the single adult recovery shelter costs $100,000 each year.
Robinson said for the past year, the nonprofit had paid for the shelters with $88,000 in revenue from its stores and $55,000 in private gifts.
The shelters had been supported through U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s Emergency Solutions Grants program, which was administered through the state Department of Commerce, but that funding ended prior to Robinson joining Serenity House in November 2016, he said.
As Serenity House struggles to keep its shelters’ doors open, Clallam County also is struggling to balance its general fund budget, which is increasingly burdened by decisions made at the state level.
Johnson said the county will need to find another $500,000 or more each year to pay for its courts due to a new state law prohibiting courts from charging legal financial obligations to indigent defendants. The county also has needed to hire additional public records staff to stay adequately respond to public records requests, he said.
Clallam County Commissioner Mark Ozias said Tuesday, prior to Serenity House’s announcement, that the county has been in talks with Serenity House and earlier this year approved $55,000 in funding to help keep the overnight shelters open.
“We’ve met with representatives from Serenity House a number of times over the course of the year and I understand, like many agencies of their type, they’ve a lot of financial challenges,” he said.
Ozias said prior to the announcement Tuesday he was unaware of any specific plans, but said the county’s priority is to keep the overnight shelters open.
Though the county provided the additional $55,000 in emergency funding earlier this year, that funding came with the requirement for Serenity House to operate through the end of the year.
Uncertain of the future, Robinson said he won’t touch that funding unless the county lifts the requirement to operate until the end of the year.
Johnson said Wednesday that issue will be discussed during the Board of County Commissioners’ 9 a.m. Monday work session. He would like to see the conditions on the $55,000 lifted in an effort to buy more time to come up with a long term solution.
Robinson said that funding would allow the shelters to remain open for about another two months.
Johnson hopes the other two commissioners would agree to put it to a vote during their Tuesday business meeting, but emphasized he is only one commissioner.
“If we can utilize that to fund Serenity House and get them over the short-term crisis that they have so we can make longer term plans, that’s exactly where I am,” Johnson said Wednesday. “We’re trying to do what we can, but again, we do have limited resources.”
He hasn’t been able to talk to other commissioners about the issue because under state law, he can only communicate with the two other commissioners during a public meeting or executive session.
Ultimately, Johnson doesn’t know where the money would come from. He and Serenity House board members plan to reach out to U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer’s office to look for solutions on the federal level, but he said it would take time to receive any help from the federal government.
Johnson believes the solution to keeping Serenity House’s shelters open through the end of the year is for the community to come together and for various organizations and private donors to pitch in.
“The reality is you’re talking about 245 adults and 21 children,” Johnson said. “If we can all collaborate and work together, it might be a solution.”
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected].