It is estimated that thousands of people will be sleeping outside in the extreme cold next week.
SEATTLE – This summer was extreme heat, and now western Washington is about to see the impacts of extreme cold. Much like the heat, the homeless and low-income populations of the state will feel the worst impacts of the weather.
The reality is that there are not enough shelters or staff to deal with the situation facing the region. Nonprofits are scrambling to distribute blankets and hand warmers to help people survive, as thousands of people are likely to be sleeping in the freezing cold.
“The same thing I always do. Trying to survive. Hold your head up and pray,” Lamont Berrysmith said when asked about his plans for the extreme cold. Berrysmith lives in a tent in Belltown. He says he has been homeless for over 20 years.
Counties have released plans for the cold weather, but the plans don’t include enough beds to house people. Some counties will have heated shelters during the day, but no additional space for the night.
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“We certainly don’t have thousands of emergency beds right now that we can stand,” said Mary Steele, executive director of Compass Housing Alliance.
Compass Housing Alliance already operates a shelter and is able to add 80 more beds starting this weekend for people looking to protect themselves from the cold.
“The first two nights you don’t have a lot of people coming, but as the days go by, more and more people take advantage of it,” Steele said.
Shelters in Thurston County are expected to reach maximum capacity. The county is appealing for donations to help warm people up.
“Hand warmers, blankets and tarps so people have survival gear after the shelter is closed,” said Darian Lightfoot, Housing Program Manager for the City of Olympia.
A constraint for groups looking to open more night spaces is staffing. Nonprofits have fewer volunteers due to the pandemic, have staff with COVID-19, and like many industries, the staff are exhausted.
“Our people are on the front lines every day as heroes. Two of my team members saved lives last week,” Steele said.
Steele doesn’t expect the extreme cold to be as dangerous as the extreme heat the region has experienced this summer. She says the region has more warming centers than cooling centers. But she fears that with climate change, extremes will become more frequent.
“It is becoming more and more dangerous to simply accept a situation where we have thousands of people who have no place to live. So we have to find solutions to this problem,” Steele said. She added that the solution is to build more affordable housing.