High winds, rain and dropping temperatures are leading more homeless people to seek a warm bed at The Haven, Oak Harbor’s year-round emergency shelter that’s open for its first cold weather season.
Located inside Centennial Hall of First United Methodist Church, the Haven is at or near capacity of 30 people nightly, said Faith Wilder, board director of the Whidbey Homeless Coalition that operates the Haven.
“We’re at full tilt,” Wilder said. “Most nights are full although it is still variable from night to night. We still have a good mix of women and men and the occasional child.
“There have been a couple of nights when we have turned people away,” she added. “We have developed a first come-first serve policy when more than 30 seek shelter – with priority given to children with families and those (who are) disabled.”
She also said others have been turned away because they don’t want to comply with Haven rules, such as no drinking, drugs, weapons or loud behavior.
The Haven serves a wide range of people — from those who’ve been homeless for years, often suffering from mental health or substance abuse issues — as well as those who’ve recently lost their housing due to job loss and evictions.
“About 90 percent of those served are islanders or have island connections,” Wilder estimated.
The Whidbey Homeless Coalition has no plans to run a warming center in Langley as it did the past two years before the Haven opened.
The warming center was in the fellowship hall of Langley United Methodist Church. Doors opened at dark when temperatures dipped to 35 degrees or below.
That happened 44 times last November through March, almost stretching the volunteer effort beyond its limits.
“There have been conversations with the Langley United Methodist Church and we have come to a mutual conclusion to not open the cold weather shelter, particularly as the Haven is available to all,” Wilder said.
Between six to a dozen individuals would sleep at Langley’s warming center in a setting that included cots, bedding, food and bathrooms. Volunteers admitted the clients by 6 p.m. Guests had to agree to certain rules and clean their sleeping area before leaving by 7 a.m, which is how the Haven is now run.
Last winter, many of Langley’s warming center regulars spent their days at Oak Harbor’s SPIN Cafe, a drop-in center. Then, they boarded free Island Transit buses to travel to Langley and spend the night.
However, that routine wasn’t possible on weekends when there’s no bus service, which is still the case.
“We do have a transportation concern for South Enders seeking shelter on weekends,” Wilder said.
While the coalition continues looking for a permanent site for the Haven, the shelter rotates among churches in 90-day segments. It depends on congregations, service organizations and individuals to volunteer for nightly shifts and provide other needs.
The Haven opened April 13 at Oak Harbor’s Christian Reformed Church. It’s now set-up at First United Methodist Church, 1050 SE Ireland St.
“It’s surprisingly calm and peaceful,” said Pastor David Parker, who’s been a Haven overnight volunteer.
“Occasionally there will be someone off their meds or someone who’s snuck in alcohol and has to be booted,” he added. “But by and large, people are really tired when they arrive. Many are in their cots by 8 p.m. and asleep by 9 o’clock.”
A small paid staff manage Haven’s day-to-day operations while two volunteers act as overnight hosts, assuring the shelter remains safe and quiet.
Many donated items bring a touch of home to the Haven, such as board games for children, decks of cards and an assortment of reading material.
Intensive counseling is being provided for those using the Haven in hopes of finding them alternative places to live.
Island County Housing Support Center staff and others regularly meet with Shawna Pinder, the Haven’s manager, to discuss services and available housing, Wilder said.
• Volunteers are always needed at the Haven to help in many capacities. Training is provided for overnight hosts. Call 360-977-1200.