Severe Weather Shelter keeps islanders out of the cold

By Heather Spaudling

Journal contributor

As winds howl and temperatures drop below freezing, there are islanders who have nowhere to keep warm. To provide for these most vulnerable citizens, United Way of San Juan County launched the Severe Weather Shelter. Four years later, COVID-19 provides unexpected challenges.

“Some volunteers did not continue their commitment forward into this year because of limiting factors,” Severe Weather Shelter Coordinator Winnie Brumsickle said. She explained that COVID has made it risky for those with health issues or with geriatric family members.

Regardless of the pandemic, this season the Severe Weather Shelter will be open during periods of extreme weather from Nov. 18 until March 8, 2021.

The shelter, Brumsickle clarified, is not a homeless shelter.

“The Severe Weather Shelter functions entirely different from a homeless shelter,” Brumsickle said.

A homeless shelter requires nonprofit status, uses a significant amount of funding and grants, has a year-round location, has around-the-clock staff and is highly regulated, Brumsickle explained.

“We are a million miles from accomplishing all that would entail,” Brumsickle said. “We have policies and procedures but honestly, we are just opening the church basement for folks so they can get out of extreme weather.”

The Islands Community Church, located on Gilbert Lane, has opened its basement to the Severe Weather Shelter for the last two seasons.

“Dave Kitchen and Gary Covington have been utterly open-handed about letting us use their facility,” Brumsickle said. “It’s a perfect fit for our needs.”

Cots for the guests are supplied by Red Cross, according to Brumsickle, thanks to local volunteers and leaders Bill and LauraJo Serverson. Between seasons, the Seversons also permitted the shelter to store supplies in the Red Cross van.

In order to protect both those seeking shelter as well as the volunteers from COVID, Brumsickle said, the church added an extra HVAC filter. The shelter brought in a commercial air purifier, which is situated on the ground, and installed temporary fabric barriers to cordon off and define 6-foot spaces for individuals to sleep. All of these measures, Brumsickle added, are state recommended. The shelter, she added, has never had more than three guests overnight at a time, plus two volunteers.

“This year, it remains to be seen,” Brumsickle said.

Over the last few seasons, the number of clients the shelter hosts averages to approximately 12 individuals for 35 overnights annually, Brumsickle said. That statistic may or may not stay around the same with COVID.

“We really don’t know what to expect,” Brumsickle said, adding that they are looking for volunteers.

During operation, two volunteers spend the night and feed the guests dinner and breakfast and clean up. This year, extra sanitization to the shelter area COVID safe will be necessary.

Interactions between the volunteers and guests often leave both party’s hearts and lives changed, according to volunteers.

“Getting involved with these folks did my heart good,” volunteer Gayle Rollins said during an end of the season gathering in 2019, adding that he realized the importance of communication to homeless people.

Volunteer Allan Smith mentioned simply having someone to talk to is often taken for granted. Homelessness, he noted, can be isolating.

“You look around and don’t see any homeless people. That is because they are very good at being invisible,” Smith said. He told the story of one client who told him he just needed someone to talk to. The pair stayed up talking well into the night.

Another client expressed gratitude for the warmth and shelter, telling volunteer Jennifer Armstrong, “I feel human again.”

For those wanting to help, but not necessarily to volunteer, Brumsickle said donations are always welcome.

“We truly appreciate donations, which are generous and have been over the years,” Brumsickle said. “Friday Harbor has spoken clearly with their wallets that they do not want individuals who need shelter to sleep outside or in unfit conditions.”

For those seeking shelter or volunteer, call the shelter line at 360-298-9301.