Sheltering in place with no shelter nor place

Submitted by the Orcas Community Foundation

Imagine if you relied on the library for a warm place to spend the day and connect to the internet, or the Community Resource Center for a cup of coffee and to use a phone, or the State Park for a shower or a safe place to pitch a tent, your only shelter. When the Stay Home, Stay Healthy Order went into effect, all of those supports were shut down. And so was access to mental health services for anyone who lacked a smartphone, computer or internet. Suddenly and abruptly, all the supports you relied on to manage your life on Orcas were gone.

For some of our neighbors, they do not have to imagine this, they are living it.

Early on in this crisis, the Community Emergency Response (CER) advisory team reached out to the county to see what the plan was for our neighbors who lack housing. Erin O’Dell, Orcas Community Resource Center’s (OCRC) director and Larry Hughes, MHP, identified 10 or so clients who were without homes and a dozen or more who were living in substandard housing lacking access to either water or cooking facilities. The County offered to pay for hotel rooms for a two-week quarantine, but only if medically necessary.

Unfortunately, for several of these clients, they need more time and support than two weeks in a hotel setting can provide. The CER team formed the Orcas Shelter Group, a task force whose mission is to ensure that all Orcas residents have both a shelter and a place to shelter in place. The call went out to property owners who might host a temporary shelter on their land. The task force hoped to set up each site with a tent or trailer, a mobile shower, a porta-potty, access to electricity and water, garbage pickup, an outdoor kitchen set up, a wifi hotspot and to ensure that each resident had a smartphone. Access to a phone turned out to be a critical first step for the residents to be able to access both medical and mental health support.

The Orcas Shelter Group formed a collaborative team. OPAL Community Land Trust’s Jeanne Beck is the Property Liaison, securing places and ensuring landowners’ needs are considered and honored. OCRC contracted with Cindie McKenna and Larry Hughes to be resident advocates, providing an intake screening to assess their needs and making a daily mental health visit with each client. OICF has contracted with Mike and Kai McGregor to provide Resource Management, gathering the supplies needed to set up a host site and resupplying as needed to keep it going.

Islanders have donated two trailers to the effort. Jerry Smith and the Micah 6:8 Prison Ministries have agreed to take ownership of the trailers. The Airport Center, Community Church, Catholic Church, Camp Orkila, the County (Village Green), Orcas Christian School and OrcaSong Farm have all agreed to be hosts. Other property owners expressed interest in hosting, but liability concerns are a barrier. The Orcas Shelter Group has asked the County to provide liability coverage and to commit to the removal and restoration of the sites. The County is still considering their role and responsibilities. OPALCO has provided the wifi hotspots and Compass Health and Windermere have contributed smartphones.

To date, there are four neighbors in residence. All are women. We anticipate working with additional clients as time goes on and awareness of the opportunity spreads. The plan is to provide support through the end of the Governor’s shelter in place declaration plus 30-60 days.

As a community, Orcas has invested a great deal of time and energy through police, EMS, and crisis mental health responses when one of our unsheltered neighbors has a breakdown or acts out inappropriately. The pandemic has proven these issues are public health issues that require a thoughtful and compassionate response.

The Orcas Shelter Group recognizes that the clients being supported faced many barriers before this crisis and will continue to need support afterward. Fortunately, the scale of homelessness on Orcas is manageable. This community has the opportunity to create a lasting solution to ensure all residents have both a shelter and a place.

The Orcas Shelter Group is looking at long term solutions and wants the Orcas community to be part of designing that solution. The goal is to come through this crisis stronger, wiser and more able to provide housing for every member of our community.

The Orcas Shelter Group members can be reached at Members are: Lisa Byers and Jeanne Beck, OPAL CLT; Hilary Canty and Judy Scott, OICF; Erin O’Dell and Hugh Grant, OCRC and LICSW, Emmanuel Parish; Rick Hughes, San Juan Co Councilmember; Brian Moss, Orcas Community Church; Janine Hiemrich, Recovery in Community; Steve Deipenbrock, Morning Star Builders; Larry Hughes, LICSW, Cindie McKenna, LICSW, and Michael and Kai McGregor, resource managers.