A low-barrier homeless shelter in Kelso just shut down this week after Cowlitz County bought its building, but with nowhere else to go, some clients pitched their tents right outside of the county administration building next door.
It’s the latest chapter in an ongoing controversy involving the “Love Overwhelming” shelter.
Cowlitz County commissioners say complaints have been coming in ever since it opened two years ago, but leaders of the shelter say most of those complaints are unfounded.
Friday afternoon, police moved in to tell campers they needed to pack up and move.
“They have to do their job and at the same time we feel we deserve a safe place to stay and we shouldn’t have to be thrown out there like we’re nothing,” Telisha Lewis said of the officers.
Lewis has been struggling with homelessness since she was a teenager, but she’s now enrolled in college and trying to get her life on track. She’s stayed at Love Overwhelming on and off since it opened.
“To come back right before it closed, it breaks my heart because I don’t have any family here,” she said. “Most of the friends I’ve made have been at Love Overwhelming. The staff, I consider each and every one of them my guardian angels and my friends.”
“There’s a lot of tears going on around here because we’re all frustrated,” Love Overwhelming client Dave Hamer told responding officers. “We don’t know what to do in this situation.”
Hamer was appointed “mayor” of the homeless group and said he met with Joe Gardner, the Chair of the Cowlitz County Board of Commissioners, on Friday.
“He asked us what was going on out here, what was our point, what was our intent and I let him know we don’t have a solution but we’re human,” Hamer said. “As far as being heard I feel like he heard us, but as far as a solution, he was as dumbfounded as the rest of us.”
FOX 12 tried reaching Gardner on Friday but did not hear back from him.
Fellow Commissioner Dennis Weber said the county agrees there needs to be a low-barrier shelter, but that this location hasn’t been a good fit.
“The problem is, they can’t serve everybody who shows up,” Weber said. “I don’t mean to be critical of Love Overwhelming, they’ve done the best they could with their abilities and the resources they have, it’s just a combination of different factors. It’s not a good location, the building wasn’t designed for the kind of shelter they wanted to run and last but not least, we have a severe lack of rental units necessary to complete the service for the chronically homeless.”
Weber added that the overflow of homeless clients has led to a number of problems around the county offices including lewd behavior, camping, drug use and public urination among other things.
He said shelter leaders were given plenty of notice that they needed to find a new location.
Shelter leaders say they do have a building in Longview, but with a moratorium on emergency shelters just extended in that city, they can’t move into it.
Now, people like Telisha Lewis and Dave Hamer are caught in the middle.
“There are people who urinate in their bushes and leave garbage behind, but what they don’t see is those of us who come behind those people and berate them for that behavior ‘cause it reflects [poorly] on all of us,” Hamer said.
Love Overwhelming served its last overnight clients Wednesday, with shelter leaders estimating that 65 people spent the night. The majority of the clients are medically fragile, and shelter leaders have been working to find them help.
“We’ve been trying and trying and trying to find an alternative solution, a hotel, a friend and we’ve been able to help a few people but we can’t help them all immediately,” said shelter employee Tonia Bertellotti. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
“There are those who choose to live this lifestyle and are content with where they’re at. Those people even I can’t help,” Hamer added. “But for those of us who want help, need help and are looking for any kind of out besides jail or this life - I don’t want it. But I know without it I wouldn’t survive, without the support.”
Commissioner Weber said there are roughly 1,000 people who experience homelessness in Cowlitz County every year, and the majority of them are getting the support and resources they need.
“[We have a] 90 percent success rate in dealing with the homeless in this community, but that doesn’t mean we give up on the last 10 percent,” he said.
The group packed up Friday afternoon and moved to a new location on county property. They hope to have a shelter to call home once again sometime soon.
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