Yakima homeless shelter volunteers take to the streets

Volunteers search for people needing shelter from the cold

YAKIMA, Wash. — Yakima County homeless shelters are trying their best to keep people safe in the extreme cold by sending volunteers out to find people living without shelter and offer them a safe, warm place to stay.

Volunteer outreach teams at Camp Hope and the Yakima Union Gospel Mission have been hard at work, looking all over for people stuck outside in the freezing temperatures and continued snowfall.

“We were out the other day: there was a guy down by the river that just had on a normal, long-sleeve flannel shirt and jeans,” said Michael Kay, Director of Camp Hope. “He’s trying to keep himself warm with a propane heater and that’s all he has.”

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Winter storms dangerous for people experiencing homelessness

Kay said the cold, damp and uncomfortable conditions pose a risk of illness, injury and even death for people trying to live outdoors.

“I do see a lot of people with frostbite,” Kay said. “I do see a lot of people with damage to their extremities, darn near hypothermic.”

While Camp Hope does outreach year-round, those effort increase exponentially in bad weather because snow, ice and other challenges make it even more difficult for people experiencing homelessness to get to a shelter.

Yakima County law enforcement officers help with outreach

In the past few days, the outreach team was able to bring 34 people in from the cold. Kay said that number is due in part to the help they received from the Yakima Police Department, Yakima County Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies.

Kay said when local officers and deputies come into contact with someone who is homeless, they make a concerted effort to get that person to a shelter. He said Camp Hope often receives calls from officers wanting to know if they have a bed available.

“Having law enforcement that sees people as people that are broken and need shelter versus criminals is a really big difference,” Kay said. “That’s a real big deal for Yakima County to have law enforcement departments that view it that way.”

Outreach is important, even when people say no to shelter

While the volunteers prefer to bring people to shelters, sometimes they just don’t want to come for their own reasons. When that happens, Kay said volunteers make sure to bring resources to them, including outerwear and blankets.

“Sometimes the sweatshirts that we carry in our vehicles, you know, they feel like a million bucks,” Kay said.

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Kay said volunteers also try to educate people on how to stay warm in a safe way, especially those trying to heat tents or other outdoor dwellings in ways that could potentially cause a fire.

“It’s scary because some of these folks are heating these makeshift tents or domiciles down by the river with propane heat, which is something that’s really dangerous,” Kay said. “But I get it: they’re trying to survive.”

Kay said every contact with someone living without shelter is important: just because they say no to coming to Camp Hope, doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate knowing that’s an option for them.

“We can talk to them,” Kay said. “We can make sure they got the flyer so if things change and they want to come in, they know that they can call and we’ll come get them.”

Kay said if a community member sees someone who looks like they make be living without shelter, he encourages them to call Camp Hope at 509-424-1228.

“That’s staffed 24 hours a day and they can say, ‘Hey, look, I just saw somebody in a doorway here,'” Kay said. “Likely, it’s probably somebody that we’ve already checked, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to go check them again.”

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