How Orcas has helped the homeless shelter in place

How Orcas has helped the homeless shelter in place

Sheltering in place is not possible when you are homeless.

When Gov. Inslee issued a stay-at-home order on March 23 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, three organizations stepped up to help some of the island’s most vulnerable residents.

“Every community in this nation has homeless, and we are no exception,” said Orcas Island Community Foundation Executive Director Hilary Canty.

OICF joined with OPAL Community Land Trust and the Orcas Community Resource Center to identify sites where those without a home could safely shelter in place. The Airport Center, Catholic Church, Orcas Community Church, American Legion, San Juan County and Camp Orkila all offered the use of their properties. OPAL’s Jeanne Beck acts as a liaison with the property owners.

OICF hired Michael McGregor as the resource manager, and he procured tents, RVs and trailer tents, sleeping bags, pillows, towels and cookstoves for the five homeless islanders who asked to participate in the program. He fills up the residents’ propane and delivers ice and food on a weekly basis.

Each site has a porta-potty and Canty’s husband Hank Date built portable shower units with on-demand hot water heaters and a shower tent. OCRC hired two mental health workers who provide case management for those living at the sites.

“It’s been an incredible process,” Canty said.

With San Juan County in phase two of reopening, two of the sites — Camp Orkila and the Airport Center — will no longer be able to host. Anyone interested in volunteering a site can contact Canty at

“All of the people we sheltered during this time were women. None of the homeless men opted in,” Canty said.

Steve Diepenbrock volunteered to do minor upgrades to existing homes with no sanitation for running water for those who did not ask for living assistance.

“These aren’t new people to this community; they are people who have lived here and need help … some were living in their cars and some were sleeping in the courtyard by the co-op, behind the library or at Moran State Park,” she said.

Canty says it’s important to note that the homeless on Orcas don’t have restroom facilities readily available.

“This is a public health issue,” Canty said. “We have to have a place for people to shower and use the bathroom 24/7.”