As the Anacortes Family Center headed into the holiday season, they didn’t have to look far for the holiday cheer that helped improve life for their residents.
In fact, at one point, director Dustin Johnson stood in the parking lot as 10 cars parked in either direction dropped off load after load of holiday cheer. Boy Scouts dropped off wreaths for the front door, grocery shoppers brought gift certificates for food and neighborhoods in town signed up to sponsor the men, women and children living at the shelter.
“I wish that you could see the pure excitement and exulting gratitude of the lives you’ve touched,” Johnson wrote in an email about the center’s supporters.
“It was incredibly impactful to see,” Johnson said in a year-end interview.
The Christmas cheer just topped off a year full of challenges and successes, he said.
In 2021, there were about 250 volunteers who showed up, ready to help out in any way they could. That varied from Boy Scouts creating outdoor projects to people running the front desk one day a week when needed, Johnson said.
“It’s been incredible to see,” he said.
The year 2021 brought some challenges, though.
The Anacortes Family Center is the only homeless shelter in the county that stayed at full capacity for the entire year. That is in part due to the way it’s set up, so people could stay in their own apartments and separate from each other. It’s also partly because of updated procedures and staffing that meant more cleaning and more steps to make sure the center could stay at full capacity, he said.
In addition to serving its own residents, the staff at the Family Center is offering broader help through the Skagit County safety net in connecting people with resources, food and mental health services.
Skagit County’s mental health system is a rough place right now, Johnson said. Lack of staffing and beds means people who need help don’t always get it. Reaching out to them where they are creates another connection to try to get people what they need as much as possible, Johnson said.
The Family Center is also working through a contract with the Anacortes Parks and Recreation Department and with the Police Department to get a social worker out to those who are living without shelter. For example, some people living in their cars need help to get back on their feet, Johnson said.
The current vacancy rate is at 0% for rentals here. So even people who live at the Family Center and complete all of the training can have trouble finding a place to live when they leave.
The goal is always for residents to transition into permanent housing, but that has been difficult this year, Johnson said.
That means the center’s success rate, or the number of its families leaving to stable housing with a steady source of income, is only about 75%, when its goal is more than 80%. It’s still very high compared to similar facilities nearby, some of which are seeing closer to 20%, Johnson said.
“There are no places to rent,” he said.
That’s true across the county and all over the state right now, he said.
In 2022, Johnson said he hopes to see that Anacortes number grow again, while continuing to serve the most vulnerable people in the population.
In 2021, the center served about 200 kids and 175 adults.
It also did outreach with countless people and provided hotel-motel vouchers that allowed families and individuals to get into a hotel room for the night.
The center also started its mentor program, which is helping connect youths to business leaders and community mentors. What started just at the center is now expanding, Johnson said. The center is close to finalizing a memorandum of understanding with the Anacortes School District that will allow the district to refer students to the program, Johnson said.
Right now, parents need request that their child takes part.
The center is looking for more mentor volunteers, Johnson said. They want volunteers of all kinds but especially have a need for women and younger people who want to help out, he said.
A new partnership with Windermere and A Simple Gesture also means fresh produce is dropped off each week for residents at the Family Center, Johnson said.
Meanwhile, the center is moving forward with two major construction projects.
The first is the new administration building, under construction now. The space will not only give the Family Center a new place for its administrative offices, but also an office space for A Simple Gesture and for Skagit Legal Aid to help area residents with issues such as landlord-tenant mediation, Johnson said.
There will also be a teaching kitchen, a space for counseling and more.
That project, fully funded, is about $1.5 million, Johnson said.
The other project, with crews moving in now, is the new building that will include 21 apartments on top of an early learning center. It has been substantially affected by the increasing costs of construction and supplies, Johnson said. Project costs have grown along with general costs that have come with the pandemic — masks, gloves and cleaning staff.
The 1/10th of 1% sales tax implemented by the City of Anacortes is the primary project funding source, but the center will also need donations and a loan to cover costs, Johnson said.
About $3 million of the $5.3 million will come from sales tax, he said. That money will come in from the city over the course of the next 10 years or so, he said.
The hope is that the building will be open in early 2023, Johnson said.