More than 300 people signed a petition against Whidbey Homeless Coalition’s proposed emergency overnight shelter at the former Jehovah’s Witness building on Morris Road near Coupeville.
Those uneasy about the proposed shelter are concerned about its location, lack of nearby services and safety issues for both neighbors and people sleeping there.
Whidbey Homeless Coalition Executive Director Jonathan Kline said the proposed shelter is in a prime location and that the organization has a good relationship with the community because of its success with its existing shelters.
Forty people gathered Thursday at the Central Whidbey Sportsmen’s Association to voice their concerns about the shelter.
Judy Thorpe and her husband, both Coupeville residents, organized the meeting. Thorpe said she has 40 years of experience working with people with behavioral and mental health issues and those struggling with housing.
She is critical of the proposed location.
“It’s not that we don’t want to help the homeless — we do, we care,” Judy Thorpe said. “But putting them out in a residential area without services is not the answer.”
She said she’d like to see the shelter in a place closer to services such as counseling, employment training, education and other resources more easily found off-island.
She said she gathered 325 signatures on her petition against the shelter and estimated she would have 400 by the end of this week.
“These are the people that are saying they don’t agree with having this homeless shelter on an island where there’s limited resources for the people. The people really don’t feel like isolating in a rural area is good for them,” she said of the petition.
Al Lindell, a Coupeville resident, also attended the meeting and signed the petition. He also said he feels like the location is not a good fit for the proposed shelter.
“They’re not creating any opportunities for them,” Lindell said, citing a lack of jobs in the area.
He also questioned county commissioners’ recent approval of a $415,000 state grant for the Whidbey Homeless Coalition’s purchase of the building.
“I think that money could have been used for something better,” he said.
He said he felt people were not given enough opportunity to comment on the coalition’s proposal.
“It just seems like the word really hasn’t gotten out for people to provide any input,” he said.
Kline said there are misconceptions about the proposed shelter. He noted he was not invited to the recent meeting but knew about the petition.
He described the shelter as a permanent version of the Haven, a pop-up emergency shelter that rotates between Oak Harbor churches and is not a place where people receive services. Staff and volunteers can connect people with services elsewhere, he said, and might open doors for caseworkers to meet with their clients on a case-by-case basis.
The organization has already responded to more than 200 concerns during the permitting process, he said.
The top three comments, based on how many times the issue was raised, were a preference for the shelter to be located in Oak Harbor, worry over people leaving the shelter and concern about safety issues.
They echoed statements voiced at the recent meeting.
In response to criticism over the location, Kline said the former Jehovah’s Witness building sat empty for more than a year, and “the price was right.”
He disagreed that the site was far away from services people staying there may need.
“It’s very near to most of the services that our guests need to access, which are almost entirely all in Coupeville,” Kline said, adding that county caseworkers, the hospital and a substance abuse recovery program were all in the town.
“I get that people maybe think that Oak Harbor is this large city for Island County and that they’re where the services are clustered, but it’s not the case as far as social services go,” he said.
In response to fears that people would leave the building, Kline explained that guests will be able to leave the shelter only for two smoke breaks at night, aside from checking in and out each evening and morning. After people check out, drivers will transport them to where they were picked up, he added.
“Everything is pretty supervised, pretty calm.
“Most nights at the Haven guests are just grabbing a bite to eat and going to bed,” he said, adding that the doors are locked both for the safety of the guests and people nearby.
There will also be at least one staff person supervising those staying at the shelter at all times.
Another concern was that the building does not have enough bathrooms or showers for people to use. Kline noted that current Haven spaces don’t have showers either, but that the new building will likely go through some renovations.
He said there will be a public hearing later as the organization gets further into the permitting process to talk with the community.
“I would hope that after folks ask some questions and maybe hear us out, that we’ll be able to ease some of those concerns,” he said.
This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sister publication to The Herald.