West End DSHS plans to cut its presence

Agency has online, phone access

FORKS — COVID-19-related cutbacks to in-person access to the state Department of Social and Health Services’ Community Services Office in Forks will become permanent in September, DSHS announced last week.

The agency is reducing its physical footprint on the West End, a move that will force Olympic Community Action Programs (OlyCAP) to find new quarters.

“Customers will still have the same access to food, cash, medical assistance and other support services, online and via phone, as they have throughout the COVID-19 pandemic; however, the Forks Community Services Office will downsize and only provide emergent services in its existing space at 421 5th Ave.,” DSHS spokesperson Norah West said in an email.

“Emergent services are basically dropping off paperwork and picking up EBT cards or support vouchers for customers who have a general delivery address.

“Those services have been by appointment only during the pandemic.”

DSHS will go from leasing office space for four worker cubicles to one cubicle beginning in September.

An analysis done as the DSHS’ Sept. 30 lease renewal deadline approached showed the reduction “was going to work best for most, including the community,” West said Friday in an email.

The agency’s facilities team will start reconfiguring the cubicle space and removing equipment over the next several weeks, she said.

“We will remain present in the community and, when it’s safe to do so, open for people to come into an office space if accessing services online or over the phone doesn’t work for them.”

West said no DSHS employees will lose their jobs.

“Employees transitioned to telework at the beginning of the pandemic and most will continue to telework or do a hybrid model of in-office and telework,” she said.

The Forks office of OlyCAP, which is subleasing office space from DSHS for two cubicles, must vacate by Sept. 10, OlyCAP Executive Director Cherish Cronmiller said Friday.

Cronmiller said the property owner, a Seattle limited liability company, according to the Clallam County Assessor’s Office, “hasn’t been interested or doesn’t have anything available for us.”

She said OlyCAP’s office, shut down since March 2020 due to the pandemic, ramped up its phone-based and mail services for a community with at least 30 percent of its population living at the poverty level.

Cronmiller has talked with officials from the city of Forks and Peninsula College, as well as other nonprofits, about obtaining office space to continue serving the West End in person.

“A lot of the folks don’t have good internet connections, and for a lot of them, English is not their primary language,” she said.

“That, to me, really shows we have to keep a physical presence, that being online and stuff isn’t enough.”

In a press release at dshswa.medium.com, DSHS said the move “will save an estimated $70,000 in taxpayer dollars annually while maintaining the same level of service.”

DSHS also will add a tribal liaison position in Port Angeles in the next couple of months.

The agency’s Community Services Division, which issues benefits and operates the Community Services Offices throughout the state, will share a lobby with the state Department of Children, Youth and Families in the Fifth Avenue building.

When CSOs reopen to the public, appointment-based services will be expanded, and clients will be able to obtain services at the Port Angeles CSO office at 201 W. First St., according to the press release.

“We anticipate this change will be seamless to the people we serve in the Forks area,” said Eddie Rodriguez, regional administrator for the Community Services Division.

“Over the last 18 months, we have been providing the majority of our services by telephone or online due to our COVID-19 precautions, and our data shows services for people who live in this part of the state have actually been faster in a virtual environment than they were in person pre-COVID.”

The cutback in the DSHS’ Forks operations also aligns with the agency’s business model of moving toward more phone and internet-based service delivery.

“While we are certainly still mourning the old ways of doing business, our team is simultaneously looking to the future positively and creatively, including how we continue combating poverty by providing support to individuals and families in need along the West End and Clallam Countywide in our same, slightly modified, Forks-based space,” CSO Administrator Jim Weatherly said.

“Our new tribal liaison will be positioned to assist our area tribal partners more effectively than we were in the past, due to tight budget constraints,” he added.

Forks City Clerk-Treasurer Audrey Grafstrom and City Attorney-Planner Rod Fleck said Friday they had not been notified by DSHS that the cutback was coming.

Mayor Tim Fletcher did not return a call for comment late Friday afternoon.

“The state did not send the notice to us that I’m aware of,” Fleck said.

“They’ve had a strong telework component to that building for a while,” he added.

Customers can apply for services and manage their accounts at 877-501-2233 from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, or online at WashingtonConnection.org 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Limited in-person services are available in certain circumstances; customers must call 877-501-2233 to make an in-person appointment.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].

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