MOUNT VERNON — The Mount Vernon Senior Center will be open as an overnight homeless shelter through March 20 after Mayor Jill Boudreau on Wednesday declared a cold weather emergency.
At its meeting Wednesday, the City Council approved an emergency ordinance that creates a process for using buildings as short-term shelters in weather emergencies, as long as they're shown to meet basic safety standards.
The county, which owns the senior center, applied for a permit Thursday morning and received one several hours later.
“I understand it’s not the solution, but it’s one more little piece,” county Commissioner Lisa Janicki said at a meeting announcing the decision Thursday morning.
Peter Donovan, project development manager with the city, said the work on the emergency ordinance was in response to the planned closure of the winter shelter at the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Mount Vernon.
That shelter has a permit to be open 120 days a year, which it reached Saturday. The city granted a five-day extension to stay open until the opening of this new shelter, he said.
Like with the shelter at the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, the senior center shelter will be paid for by the county and staffed by Friendship House.
Tina Tate, executive director of the nonprofit, said those who wish to stay at the shelter will need to sign up daily at the Friendship House Café.
The shelter will be open from 7 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. and will accommodate 24 people. Those staying there will be transported to and from Friendship House.
“(We hope) this will alleviate loitering around the senior center area when they are open for business,” Tate said. “We want to minimize any impact to the senior center.”
Kayla Schott-Bresler, assistant director of county Public Health, said the county is not planning to run a more permanent shelter at the senior center because it does not meet the city’s fire suppression requirements.
According to the ordinance, any building owner in the city can apply to use their building as an emergency cold-weather shelter.
The ordinance classifies severe weather as a two-day period of overnight temperatures that are forecasted to be below freezing, snow accumulation of at least 3 inches or a weather-related natural disaster such as a flood, tsunami or earthquake.
Because it was passed as an emergency ordinance, the city was able to enact it immediately.
However, the city is required to hold a public hearing on the ordinance within 60 days, and the ordinance is only valid for six months without an extension from the City Council.
Several of the homeless who have been staying at the church came to thank city and county leadership for giving them seven more days of shelter.
Sarah Vogt, who has been staying at the Seventh-Day Adventist shelter since November, said she and her fellow residents are grateful for any more time they can get.
Vogt has been working to match the homeless with community mentors through Welcome Home Community Co-op, a homeless-led volunteer group that is closely aligned with the church.
In the past week alone, she said the group has helped five people into classes at Skagit Valley College, two prepare to get their GEDs and two get into behavioral health treatment.
If there’s no shelter available to them in the future, she’s worried these people will regress in the progress they’ve made.
Tiffany Holien, another shelter resident, thanked the county and the city for what they’ve been able to do but said a larger change is necessary before things can really improve for the homeless.
“The citizens of Skagit County need to change their mentality on how they view the homeless,” she said. “We’re not all drug addicts. We’re not all alcoholics. I’ve never been in prison. I’ve never been arrested.”