Thurston Co. to expand number of beds for homeless on smoky days, not just cold ones

How can you help the homeless?

There is no one-size-fits-all plan that works for helping the homeless. But rather than ignore those living on the streets, use these suggestions to guide your desire to reach out.
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There is no one-size-fits-all plan that works for helping the homeless. But rather than ignore those living on the streets, use these suggestions to guide your desire to reach out.

One of the first pieces of expert advice when wildfire smoke rolls in: Close the windows and stay inside to avoid itchy eyes, a sore throat, and longer-term health effects.

But what about the 800-plus people living in Thurston County who don’t have shelter to retreat to?

The Hazardous Weather Task Force within the county’s Department of Public Health and Social Services recently grappled with that dilemma. Now, through new contracts with shelters, the county will be able to expand shelter capacity when it’s smoky, like it does now during cold weather. The change takes effect Sept. 1.

“For the first time, we’ve been able to do what we hoped to do at the very onset of the hazardous weather task force,” Keylee Marineau, homeless prevention and affordable housing coordinator, told the county’s Board of Health this week.

The Hazardous Weather Task Force is made up of various agencies, shelters, organizations, and citizens and was founded ahead of the 2017-18 cold-weather season, according to Marineau, who oversees the task force. Its website states the task force works “to plan expansion services and outreach to minimize illness and death among unsheltered homeless persons during normal and extreme weather.”

Between 800 and 1,000 unhoused individuals and families live in Thurston County, which has approximately 357 shelter beds, Marineau told The Olympian. All those beds, she said, are full.

Since 2017, the county has increased funding for the three shelters it contracts with for the cold-weather season ⁠— Nov. 1 to March 31⁠ — so the shelters can temporarily increase capacity, according to Marineau. She said other non-contracted agencies, such as Union Gospel Mission, increase capacity for the season as well. Altogether, it amounts to about 96 extra beds, Marineau told The Olympian.

In the event of extreme weather during the cold months, the county’s “code blue” advisories have expanded shelter capacity even more.

During the February 2019 snowstorm and subsequent 12-day “code blue,” the task force also implemented a “shelter-in-place” model through local non-profit Partners in Prevention Education, Marineau told the board this week. Volunteers worked with Intercity Transit to provide transportation to shelter and bring people supplies.

But last August, when air quality across the county was poor because of nearby wildfires, Marineau said the task force didn’t have a way to respond.

In anticipation of a similarly smoky late-summer and fall this year, the county is replacing its seasonal contracts with annual ones, according to Marineau. That means, starting Sept. 1, shelters will be able to increase beds during hazardous weather events any time of year, including days when air quality is poor.

Marineau said the annual contracts also include “shelter-in-place” services such as the strategies used in February, and should also allow for shelters to prepare in advance for the cold-weather season.

How it works: If bad weather or wildfire smoke is predicted, Marineau will convene the task force, which will make a recommendation to the Director of Public Health, who will decide whether to declare a “hazardous weather condition.” Such a declaration would spark outreach and extra resources.

In the event of wildfire smoke, Marineau said the threshold will likely be 80 micrograms per cubic meter of air. That, she said, is when the Washington Air Quality Advisory scale considers the air dangerous for “vulnerable populations.” The language is still a work-in-progress, but how long the air quality is expected to be at that level will also be considered, she said, since these events take a lot of resources.

Marineau told The Olympian that the February 2019 snowstorm called for the largest effort that’s been made yet, and the cost for staffing and supplies was about $19,000 over the 12 days⁠. Most of that, she said, was staffing.

“It can be a very expensive operation,” Marineau said.

Adding more volunteers can cut into that cost, according to Marineau. Volunteers can work in a stand-up shelter, drop off supplies, or participate in shelter-in-place efforts. People interested in volunteering during these events should send an email to keylee.marineau@co.thurston.wa.us.

“I think it’s important to realize that, with so many people unsheltered and our shelter beds full most nights, that it’s in our best interest to keep our unhoused neighbors safe,” Marineau said.

Sara Gentzler joined The Olympian in June 2019. She primarily covers Thurston County government and its courts, as well as breaking news. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Creighton University.