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In Port Angeles, Addressing Homelessness With Scarce Housing And Unsteady Funding

Ed Ronco
Executive Director Richard "Doc" Robinson points out the apartments at Evergreen Family Village in Port Angeles, one of the housing programs run by Serenity House of Clallam County.

Community groups and churches are working to find temporary funding for an overnight homeless shelter in Port Angeles after money ran out last week.

The family and nightly shelters run by the nonprofit group Serenity House of Clallam County had to stop operations temporarily. Executive Director Richard “Doc” Robinson says he hopes the stopgap funding from the community can get the doors back open by Labor Day.

Serenity House is a private nonprofit, but is designated by Clallam County as its lead agency to address a variety of needs related to homelessness, from temporary shelter to long-term housing.

Many of the organization’s other programs continue operating. That includes Evergreen Family Village, a collection of two- and three-bedroom apartments centered around a yard with a basketball court and a plastic playset. 

Robinson says a lot of the work Serenity House does has two aims. The first is to put a roof over someone’s head. But the second is a longer-term goal: to lay the groundwork for people to be able to find a better life ahead.

He says progress can be hard to measure. He tells the story of a woman in her early thirties who had been experiencing homelessness since childhood.

“She got into a lot of trouble and she kept using our night-by-night shelter,” Robinson said, adding she had some addiction issues.

One day she disappeared. Robinson said later they learned she had checked into rehab and gone to live with family in Denver, where she was living clean and sober.

“And she references the messages she kept getting from shelter personnel: That you can do this, that you have the strength, that you can build a new life, that your past doesn’t create your future,” he said. “This sort of planting of seeds is the purpose of our work.”

Serenity House does not have reliable funding, such as a dedicated tax levy. Instead, it must compete for grants. It also counts on sales from thrift stores and private donations. Clallam County chips in, too.

“We just need to reconfigure the county to figure out how we can allocate what we need to do to help them,” said Randy Johnson, one of three people on the county commission.

He said the county received $950,000 in requests from various groups to address homelessness, but only had $400,000 to distribute.

“It kind of overwhelms you,” Johnson said. “How do we allocate the scarce resource of money to do the best we can for the people of Clallam County?”

It’s a financial problem, but also a structural one, says Serenity House’s Robinson. Rents keep going up in Clallam County. Housing is scarce. And building new housing -- the kind that will last, anyway -- takes longer than it should, Robinson said.

“We don’t need tent cities,” he said. “We need ways to put people into something reasonably permanent.”

Serenity House is beginning work on its latest apartment project, much like the Evergreen Family Commons. Robinson says it will take seven years to complete from concept to move-in.

“That’s too long,” he said. “How about three? … And to do that requires lenders and funders and regulators. The governor should just put us all in a room and lock the key.”

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.