Toppenish homeless shelter opens to address ‘all-time high demand’ in Yakima County

Shelter needs $20,000 more to stay open 24/7

UPDATE: The extreme winter weather shelter in Toppenish is now open. 

TOPPENISH, Wash. — The newly-established extreme winter weather shelter in Toppenish is set to open Monday and will provide a safe, warm place to sleep for dozens of people currently living unsheltered in the Lower Yakima Valley.

“We all said it’s not acceptable to have folks out on the streets with this extreme weather, so we all worked together to try and come up with a solution,” said Mike Kay, CEO and Director of Camp Hope.

The shelter, located at 508 W. First Ave. in Toppenish, is a collaborative effort between a half-dozen public and private agencies, including:

  • Camp Hope of Yakima — Camp Hope provided some of the funding to open the shelter, staff and volunteer hours, and will be in charge of day-to-day operations at the shelter.
  • City of Toppenish – Kay said while the shelter was working on a strict timeline to open, the Toppenish City Council quickly gave verbal approval for the shelter to open. Additionally, Kay said city staff have been supportive, have volunteered and/or donated needed items.
  • Sunrise Outreach Center — The Sunrise Outreach Center, which formerly operated Camp Hope, is coordinating meals for the shelter, which are being cooked and donated by several local civic and religious organizations.
  • Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic — Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic owns the building the shelter is operating out of, which has been vacant for more than a year. Kay said the clinic is allowing the shelter to operate out of the building for free, helping to pay some of the utilities and donated $15,000 to go toward the cost of operating the shelter
  • Village of Hope – Yakama Nation — Kay said Village of Hope provided bedding for the shelter, will allow shelter residents to access their clothing donation bank and is helping to coordinate services for any tribal members who end up staying at the shelter.
  • Yakima County – Human Services Division – Kay said the Yakima County Board of Commissioners provided $40,000 in funding to open the shelter and have been supportive about trying to help them find additional funding.

Residents sleep in private tents, indoors

Every resident at the shelter will receive their own private tent to sleep in, that will be used only by them. Kay said the tents not only provide privacy for residents, but an additional barrier between people to help prevent the transmission of COVID-19.

Kay said the large front room will be used as the dining area and has enough room for residents to eat and interact while physically distancing from one another. They’re also installing a television and plastic-covered couch to provide some entertainment for those staying at the shelter.

In an adjoining room, a secure storage area will hold any of the residents’ valuable personal effects, such as bikes, backpacks or other items they would like to be locked up. Kay said if the shelter fills to capacity, residents will eat dinner in shifts to allow for better social distancing.

Further back, one of the rooms dedicated as men’s space will hold a series of orange tents, lined up in a row, with an adjoining room for any overflow. Kay said the space can house up to 35 men. Portable toilets will be available in the parking lot outside the shelter.

Off to one side of the main room is a smaller room with five dedicated isolation beds, where residents can sleep safely and apart from others should they contract COVID-19. Kay said the women’s area can house between 18 and 20 beds.

Kay said when he was picking out the tents, his young daughter suggested he should get pink tents for the women — and he did.

Altogether, Kay said the Toppenish shelter can comfortably house 45 people and has the capacity for up to 60 beds, including the isolation space. He said the addition of the shelter nearly quadruples the amount of available beds for the homeless in the Lower Yakima Valley, south of Wapato.

Overnight only: $20,000 needed to stay open 24/7

Kay said last year, Camp Hope operated a small extreme weather shelter out of the same building, but had a third of the capacity (20 to 25 beds), operated strictly from donations, only had access to half the building space and was open later in the winter season, from January to March.

This year, the shelter has $55,000 in funding — $40,000 from Yakima County and $15,000 from the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic — and a bigger space, as the clinic allowed them to knock out part of a wall between two vacant spaces, allowing them to triple the capacity and occupy the entire building. It will also have a longer operation season, from Dec. 14 to March 31.

“[That] sounds like it’s a lot of money, but when you’re trying to feed 50 people through March 31st, it goes pretty fast,” Kay said.

However, one thing remains the same: the shelter is only open overnight. Due to budgetary constraints, the shelter will open at 6 p.m., provide residents with a hot meal and a safe, warm place to sleep, but at 6 a.m., they have to leave the shelter until night falls again.

Kay said to hire enough staff members to keep the shelter open during the day, they need an additional $20,000, which would give the residents a safe place to stay not just during the night, but in the day as well.

“But more importantly, we can bring case managers in, we can bring service providers in that they normally wouldn’t come in contact with,” Kay said. “They can help these people get back to wholeness while we have them here for the next few months.”

In the meantime, Kay said they’ll be providing transportation to any residents who want to go to Camp Hope’s location in Yakima to access breakfast, lunch, a shower, or other services for the day, then return to the Toppenish shelter at night.

Budgets tighten, while demand for services increases

The additional funding is particularly needed this year; Kay said though budgets are tight for non-profit organizations, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic has led to an “all-time high demand for shelter” in the Yakima Valley.

Kay said he’s seen more people this year come to Camp Hope who are experiencing homelessness for the first time, having lost their business or jobs due to COVID-19 restrictions. He said some are experiencing greater mental health or substance abuse issues due to the pandemic’s emotional toll.

The budget has grown especially tight for Camp Hope and the non-profit that operates it, Grace City Outreach. Camp Hope is currently located in the parking lot of the old Kmart building at 2300 E. Birch St. and sleeps an average of 95 people on any given night, which includes single adult men and women, and families with children.

Camp Hope was founded in March 2017 to address increasing homelessness in downtown Yakima and countywide. At its inception, the shelter was run by non-profit Transform Yakima Together and funded at $475,000 a year by the Yakima Valley Council of Governments.

“On March 22, 2017, Camp Hope began as an outdoor, barracks-style encampment for approximately 45 adults with 24-hour security, 3 meals a day brought in by volunteers, a shower trailer (as there was no running water), and an education center to teach life skills, literacy, and GED classes. As the temperature got colder, a search began for an indoor location. On November 15, 2017, the Camp Hope winter weather shelter opened in a warehouse on 1702 Englewood Avenue in Yakima. The location operated as a day-time warming station for many homeless in the community and slept around 100 residents nightly, not only for men and women, but also for families with children.” — Camp Hope website

That first year, the shelter provided needed services, ranging from a place to sleep and a hot meal to education and GED services, to more than 550 people.

In late 2018, Kay said the governing board of Transform Yakima Together was facing financial difficulties and decided to dissolve the non-profit organization. To prevent Camp Hope and other services from shutting down, Kay said Sunrise Outreach Center stepped in and took over Transform Yakima’s contracts in January 2019.

The two-year grant provided by YVCOG — $475,000 a year — expired in June, at the end of the two-year grant cycle. Due to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, the county’s homeless program funding took a drastic cut.

As a result, the county notified Sunrise Outreach Center it would only be receiving $304,250 annually for the next two years — a cut of nearly $180,000 and more than 35% of its yearly operating budget.

The substantial decrease in funding led Sunrise Outreach Center to start winding down its operation of Camp Hope over the summer; Kay said he understood the decision, saying the center felt they couldn’t make it work. That’s when Kay began working to create Grace City Outreach, with the goal of permanently taking over operations at the shelter.

In the meantime, Yakima County Commissioners authorized emergency funding as a stop-gap measure to keep the shelter open and operated by Sunrise Outreach Center, giving Kay the time he needed to get everything in place.

Grace City Outreach quickly received 501(c)3 certification at the state level, but struggled to get certified at the federal level — a requirement to receive county homeless program funds — as the virus shut down IRS offices and brought the federal certification process to a near-standstill.

Grace City Outreach takes over, looks to the future

Kay said it took until July to receive the required certification; Grace City Outreach officially took over Camp Hope on Oct. 1, the effort to establish the Toppenish shelter, and several transitional housing projects associated with Camp Hope, including:

  • HOPE House, which houses six women who have been chronically homeless.
  • JESSE’s House — named after a former resident of Camp Hope — houses five to six women who have been chronically homeless and are over 55 years old.
  • FAITH House houses six women who are dealing with substance abuse issues.
  • Two “tiny homes” at Terrace Heights Assembly Church house women who have been homeless.

Kay said when people enter Camp Hope, they’re assigned a case manager to help them access needed services, provide support, check in with them about how they’re doing and follow them through the process of becoming “whole” again, whatever that means to them personally.

That same case manager follows them as they move into transitional housing. With the exception of the tiny homes, all of the women rent a room in their house and share living and kitchen areas.

“They continue to heal and grow, be taught life skills and then, from there, they move into permanent housing,” Kay said. “[Camp Hope] is like the ER, where they come in and then, as they heal and stabilize, they can move into one of the homes.”

Kay said even after people move from Camp Hope to transitional housing and then to safe, independent living in a permanent home, they remain in contact with their former residents.

“We still keep in touch and most still participate in Camp Hope events or come back and volunteer to help in different ways,” Kay said. “With this method, we see almost no recidivism where they end up back on the street and starting over.”

Kay said his goal is to be able to keep the extreme winter weather shelter in Toppenish open during the day and eventually open a permanent shelter in Toppenish, as well as one to serve the Sunnyside and Grandview areas. He said they also hope to open two transitional houses for men within the next year and build additional tiny homes.

The dire need for a new shelter

With Camp Hope’s funding cut by more than a third this year, increased insurance and sanitation costs due to COVID-19 and a growing number of people seeking shelter, Kay said donations are more important than ever.

Kay said the new Toppenish shelter grew out of a severe and urgent need for services in that area; he said it’s the only one in the Lower Valley — south of Wapato — that accepts single adults.

It’s ideally located, Kay said —near enough to the Yakama Nation reservation to allow tribal members access to their community and needed resources. It’s also next-door to Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, allowing residents easy access to medical services.

Those services are especially needed right now, as temperatures drop below freezing overnight.  It’s also one of the few low-barrier shelters locally; people don’t have to have identification and can still spend the night if they are intoxicated.

Kay said it’s those people who are most in need of shelter that may be turned away from other places with greater restrictions.

“They can be under the influence of alcohol, but they can’t drink here,” Kay said. “They can be under the influence of narcotics, but they can’t use here.”

There’s no requirement to participate in religious activities to receive services. Kay said pets are allowed, but will be kept in an airport-style kennel, must stay with their owner at all times and cannot be aggressive or dangerous.

Residents don’t have to carry I.D., but do have to agree to COVID-19 precautions and to the same rules that apply at Camp Hope.

“They have to be respectful to themselves, respectful to others, no weapons and no violence,” Kay said.

Residents will be screened for virus symptoms upon entry and given a mask if they do not have one.

Kay said Camp Hope has been fortunate enough to not have a single case of COVID-19 among its residents as of yet — a fact Kay credits to their outdoor setup, which is conducive to social distancing, their increased cleaning and other virus protocols, and the commitment by residents to follow those protocols.

While the Toppenish shelter is for adults only, families seeking shelter in that area can be transported to Camp Hope in Yakima, which has special housing available for families with children. There are currently four families being housed there.

Kay said anyone under the age of 18 can be taken to Rod’s House, which can put them up in a Motel 6 room in Yakima or be taken to the organization’s emergency shelter location in Sunnyside.

One key factor in the creation of the Toppenish shelter, Kay said, is the involvement with Yakama Nation’s homeless shelter, Village of Hope, which houses tribal families in need of a place to stay. He said it was important to him to have that involvement, as many of those seeking shelter in that area are tribal members.

To anyone currently experiencing homelessness, Kay had this to say.

“Number one, they shouldn’t be ashamed of it. There’s people that want to help and it’s no judgement. We were within a week of being homeless ourselves, you know, a few years back, with a four-month-old daughter. I get it. I get the fact, especially for the men in the household, that it’s a pride thing. But this isn’t about pride. This is about making sure we’re all safe. We’re all in this together. We want them to know that we’ll help them provide, get the resources they need and be able to take care of their families at a level with dignity and respect.”

Anyone wanting to help Camp Hope Yakima or the Toppenish extreme winter weather shelter can:

  • Donate money online here or send a check/money order to Camp Hope P.O.Box 9074 Yakima, WA 98901, and designate whether the donation is for Camp Hope Yakima or the Toppenish extreme winter weather shelter.
  • Donate clothing, toiletries, blankets, items for pets and other needed supplies. Donations can be dropped off at Camp Hope, 2300 E. Birch St. in Yakima. Kay said staff can also come pick up donation items, pending availability. For more information on donation options, call 509-424-1228. A full list of needed items can be found here.
  • Donate meals, either through funding the cost of a meal, helping to serve a meal on-site, providing a cooked meal to bring to the site or giving food items that can be used to make a meal. For details on how this option works with COVID-19 restrictions, call 509-480-9760 or send an email to ryndsh@gmail.com.
  • Purchase items on Camp Hope’s wishlist on Amazon, which will be delivered directly to the organization. Items ranges from about $13 to $80.
  • Buy items for Christmas stocking stuffers to be given to residents during the holiday season. For more information, call 509-424-1228.