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Yakima opens emergency winter shelter in downtown church

During its first month of operation, the Emergency Winter Shelter Project, sponsored by Yakima County Homeless Network and the Department of Community Services, served an average of nine men a night at First Baptist Church from its opening Dec. 18 to Jan. 24.  It also served an average of five women and children a night at Vineyard Church, which opened three weeks later.

“The word is spreading quickly and we may soon need to expand to our overflow locations at Note of Joy Church and YWCA,” said Lyle K’ang, project manager through the Department of Community Services.

As of Jan. 24, he estimated that they had served a total of 54 different homeless individuals, bringing them off the streets particularly as temperatures approach and drop below 32 degrees.

Most of the guests at the shelters are individuals and families who would have spent the night outside in the cold had the churches not been available.

“They appreciate the shelter, food and rest, and are responsive to the simple guidelines we have in place,” he said.

Organizers are accepting more volunteers and food donations.

“Some people have found it rewarding to bring a pot of soup or other cooked meal in the evening, or scrambled eggs or waffles in the morning as a way to contribute,” Lyle said in a letter inviting more people to join the 60 volunteers involved and trained.

Monitors, who stay from 7:30 p.m. to 8 a.m., take turns sleeping. Many spend the night and go to work during the day.

“Several of our homeless guests have been through our training and are reliable and responsible as monitors,” he said.

Steve Gaulke of Yakima Mental Health and Brian Laverty, a former homeless person who runs “A Sober Breath” and “The Zone” teen center, have been working on this idea for about four years.

In November, the Extreme Winter Weather Project group of 10 sent a letter to 100 churches asking them to offer space for the shelter.  With the response of First Baptist and Vineyard, they opened it.

“There are other shelters, but some do not let in people who are intoxicated, as we do.  We have rules and expect guests to abide by them,” said Lyle.  “Our first goal is to meet the immediate need of bringing in people off the streets when it is extremely cold, providing a meal, a comfort kit with toiletries and a cot.”

Ten Latter-Day Saints churches are helping prepare the comfort kits with toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo and other items.

Larry Connell of the Latter-Day Saints community is working to acquire land for building a permanent shelter by late October 2007, anticipating that with the 10 percent increase in homeless people from 2005 to 2006, there will be a greater rise in 2007.

At that shelter, the “Consortium of Caring” of 40 agencies involved in the Homeless Network will provide training, help people find jobs, prepare resumes, mentor people to keep jobs and assist with budgeting so people can purchase homes.

“Our vision is to end homelessness,” said Lyle, who is also  in the Yakima Association of Churches.

As a former business owner, he invites businesses and Chamber of Commerce to be involved because it discourages shoppers when there are homeless people on the streets, he said.  “We also need to break down the stigmas and show human compassion.”

Englewood Christian Church is providing the food for one night a week, said the pastor the Rev. David Helseth. 

“This winter an interest in the homeless came together quickly and strongly,” he said.  “Part of this is around the Point-In-Time survey that took place Jan. 25, but part is just that several people became involved and made it happen for homeless people in Yakima.”

The Rev. Dave Roberts of First Baptist heard about the Homeless Network and began attending meetings, where he learned they were seeking a downtown church near the main business district.

“Given that homeless people have sometimes ‘parked’ at our front door, our church talked about providing our facility.  We had space and felt it was a way we could respond and help people experience Christ’s love,” he said.

Because the average age of the 110 members is 70 years old, only two of the members of this 113-year-old congregation are overnight hosts.  Others donate food and necessities.  Volunteers from other churches and the community also help make the shelter possible.

Now that word is out, there have been several nights they had to turn away three or four people, said Dave, who has been pastor there for 10 years.

“The Yakima Herald has done a good job of covering the effort, with an article every week, including a front page article,” he said.

The Homeless Network of Yakima County is an association of local organizations whose mission is to advocate for the homeless in the county, to improve the quality of life, increase public awareness of issues, influence public policy and end homelessness.

It seeks to move people beyond shelter into permanent housing and self-sufficiency by looking at a comprehensive range of needs and developing local capacity to meet the needs by linking resources, agencies and individuals.

The network began in December 2003 when Tim Sullivan of United Way of Yakima County and Bill Cobabe of the City of Yakima Neighborhood Development Office met to discuss their concerns. 

They called a meeting in January 2004 for the Continuum of Care and local agencies serving the homeless, as part of developing a 10-year homeless prevention plan for the county.  The group meets biweekly.  By March 2004, 20 organizations were attending.  By December 2005, 40 organizations were members, and had created the county’s first 10-year plan to end homelessness.

Meetings are at 3 p.m., first and last Wednesdays, at the Yakima Neighborhood Health Services, 12 S 8th St., in Yakima.

Yakima County, which is participating in the community resources 2-1-1 phone-in information and referral line, includes assistance to homeless people.

The January 2006, Point-in-Time Count of homeless people found 1,265 individuals, a 75 percent increase over the count in 2005.

For information, call 574-1528.or email


Mary Stamp - The Fig Tree - © February 2007