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As snow falls, officials rush to help unsheltered people survive

An encampment along Rainier Avenue South in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.
Will James
An encampment along Rainier Avenue South in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.";

Snowfall in Western Washington on Friday had cities, counties and nonprofits rushing to help unsheltered people survive the elements.

Freezing and wet conditions are a potentially deadly threat for the thousands of people living in tents, under tarps, and in doorways in the path of Friday's storm. A 59-near-old man, Derek C. Johnson, died of hypothermia in Seattle on Thursday, according to the King County Medical Examiner's Office. 

In Olympia's downtown, where hundreds of homeless people have set up camp in recent months, outreach workers and volunteers were handing out supplies and encouraging people to go into nearby shelters, said city spokeswoman Kellie Purce Braseth. 

"Our staff have been doing outreach to drop off things like hand warmers and emergency blankets for those people who don't want to go into the shelter so they can shelter in place," she said.

Local shelters have opened up extra space in response to a "code blue" advisory Thurston County put in place. The "code blue" is a signal for local governments and organizations to take special measures to help unsheltered people survive the weather.

Members of Thurston County's Hazardous Weather Task Force — which is comprised of government and nonprofit officials — were also trying to make contact with people living in the woods and other remote areas, said task force member Meg Martin.

"A lot of folks are concerned about leaving their encampment for fear of their belongings getting ruined or for fear of, if they leave the encampment, it getting swept" or cleared away, said Martin, a founder of Olympia's Interfaith Works shelter. "A lot of people are just wanting to hunker down." In those cases, she said, outreach workers were handing out supplies.

Martin and Purce Braseth said outreach teams are in need of supplies, particularly blankets, to hand out. Donations can be dropped off at local shelters.

In Seattle, city leaders are encouraging people to seek shelter at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall or the Garfield Community Center. "No one will be turned away" from the Seattle Center site, said Jason Johnson, interim director of the city's Human Services Department, in a news release.

Seattle police and staff were making contact with unsheltered people, and police had two large vans available to drive people to shelters, the release said. The city also put out a list of emergency shelters and warming centers.

In Tacoma, the two largest shelters for single men and women have added dozens of sleeping spaces. Those are Nativity House, run by the nonprofit Catholic Community Services, and the Tacoma Rescue Mission.

At Nativity House, located in the Hilltop neighborhood, staff have spread 80 mats in the shelter's daytime area, increasing the shelter's capacity to 250 beds, said Denny Hunthausen, who leads Pierce County's branch of Catholic Community Services.

The expanded shelter was nearly full Thursday night, Hunthausen said. 

"I’m a little surprised that we aren’t hitting capacity and having to turn people away," he said. But, he added, that could change as the cold lingers.
"Folks can withstand a night or two perhaps," Hunthausen said. "But when it gets extended to multiple nights of wet and deep cold, we may need extra capacity."

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.