Homelessness is a cold reality in this community — frighteningly cold for the past several days, as the temperature dropped to as low as 16 degrees in Aberdeen.
“It’s kind of rough, but we take care of each other,” said Larry Osborn as he sat in front of his tent near the Chehalis River Saturday afternoon in the bright sunshine and bitter cold. Osborn said he is a former logger who was injured on the job. He has lived at the campsite not far from downtown for the past four months and says the 15 to 20 people who regularly live there are like family and help each other in times like these.
“There’s even one of us that will go around and make sure everybody is OK, make sure they made it through the night,” he said.
Some of the area’s homeless take advantage of overnight shelters such as the Union Gospel Mission in downtown Aberdeen. People at the mission said they assisted about a dozen or so more people than usual due to the freezing conditions this weekend. But some without homes decided to push through the cold in their makeshift shelters outdoors.
Mysti Micheau, who was born in Aberdeen and said she has has lived on Grays Harbor ever since, was camped near Osborn and agrees that while it is a rough life, she is grateful to be a part of a group that looks out for one another. While she said summertime was “awesome” at the camp, this is the first winter of her three years of unemployment that she is staying outdoors.
“It could be a lot worse, it could be way worse,” she said as other members of the camp nod in agreement. “I could be downtown (Aberdeen), like a lot of people. There are a ton of people out there alone, sleeping in little nooks and stuff.”
Micheau, 38, said she has sent in more than 200 applications for cashier and service positions since her last job, at an Aberdeen hotel, but has not had anything fruitful come about. She said she is not giving up hope.
“Eventually,” she said, pausing to reassure herself. “I’m sure I will.”
Longtime friends with many of the people she camps with, some since childhood, Micheau said she is lucky to be able to stay with them at the camp, which contains multiple large tents and, on this recent Saturday, a booming hot fire. She also receives some assistance from her sister and her 20-year old daughter, who lives with her boyfriend in Aberdeen and who was visiting with her Saturday afternoon before heading home as the temperature dipped. Micheau and the other homeless campers also express appreciation for the meals that are brought to them — usually a warm breakfast type meal, said Osborn, from different church groups, including the Catholic Community Services’ Feed the Hungry program — and the donations of sleeping bags and blankets they sometimes bring.
“Well, we can always use more. That’s for sure,” said Osborn when asked if they have enough. He said he is also thankful for his black and white heating pad, his dog “Mowgli,” who also helps guard the camp. Osborn said they also work to keep camp members who are trustworthy and work to protect it from too many outsiders, especially a nearby camp he said has members known for stealing.
Micheau said she stayed at the Friendship House, the female counterpart to the Union Gospel Mission of Grays Harbor. The Friendship House allows children to stay with their mothers up to the age of 18 (young boys are only allowed up to age 8), for a while. However, she said her absence, due to a family medical emergency, saw her gone past the amount of allotted days within the shelters’ rules, rules which look to keep a safe environment for women and children.
“They thought I was partying or something,” she said, of the incident which she said made her ineligible to stay there any longer. The shelter is really the only place grown women and their children who are homeless can stay overnight in the area. The Union Gospel Mission (for grown men only) and the Grays Harbor Youth Center, for teens only — are the other two offered on Grays Harbor.
Like the Mission’s Heron Street facility, Friendship House — located in a 7,000 square foot home in Aberdeen — said it also saw a rise in the number of those who came to stay with them during the cold snap, about seven additional people who were sent from the Olympia area shelters because of a lack of space. But, Paula Rowell, who directs the Mission’s Friendship House, alongside her husband Gary Rowell (Executive Director of the Union Gospel Mission and in charge of the Heron Street facility), said it’s normal to see more men than women at times like these.
“Women come because they don’t want to be in a bad situation. Men come in because they want to get out of the cold,” she said. However, she said, since policy dictates that women with a known aggressor cannot stay at the shelter (though there are other outlets within the Harbor for shelter for those in situations of domestic violence), counties often swap individuals and families in need.
While both shelters have hosted an individual or two who had special needs for as many as two or three years, they prefer to assist in resolving whatever aspect has led the individual in question to their place of homelessness. Both offer a program, known as the Foundation Program, which they say is for those “truly looking to change their lives,” and which grants more permissions, like $10 a week for cosmetic purchases at the men’s shelter. All who stay at either program are asked to participate in household chores as part of their stay as well.
Tommy Jaurez, 50, also of Aberdeen, said he chose to join the program, which includes Bible study, in looking to drastically change the direction of his life. He said he worked for mills all of his life, including Weyerhaeuser until it was sold in 2009.
He said he tried getting other work, and was on unemployment until it ran out. He said he, like many others he knows, ended up looking for work “just to get by” — admitting that alcohol addiction played a large part in his troubles as well.
“You’re here, you’re there and the next thing you know you’re homeless,” he said, adding he is not sure if his mother, who lives at Pacific Beach, knows that he is homeless and staying in the shelter. “And staying on the streets, or with friends that’s not really living either.”
Both Juarez and Scott Drake, who coincidentally started the 30-day program at the same time as Juarez, said the program is hard — they had to give up smoking — but a “blessing.” So much so that Drake, a former tattoo artist, is considering an entire shift in what he wants to pursue in life, all due to the program and the kindness he said the shelter has shown him.
“I didn’t want to live that lifestyle anymore,” said Drake, who is originally from Los Angeles, but has a sister in a nearby county and chose the shelter at random. He said after 24 years of sobriety, the recent death of his wife to cancer spurred an unprecedented relapse. “It’s true, however long it’s been, you start right off where you left, and it’s usually worse.”
Gary Rowell said the Heron Street facility, which has seen around 40 individuals use its facilities daily, compared to the summer average of 25, will often receive referrals from law enforcement on the Harbor that there is someone who needs shelter.
“Even in the middle of the night,” he said, adding they have seen some “new faces” lately, though he is not sure where they are coming from.
For some like Drake, who are without a home, these programs are their lifeline and he is adamant he will do whatever it takes to keep himself from having to live out in the cold again.
“It’s what do I have to do and what do I need to do,” he said. “Misery can easily be restored to us. Just go outside. We always have that option, and it’s free.”