For about a decade-and-a-half the American Legion hall in Port Townsend has operated a shelter program for the local homeless community. But with a crucial lease agreement for the shelter stalled …
For about a decade-and-a-half the American Legion hall in Port Townsend has operated a shelter program for the local homeless community. But with a crucial lease agreement for the shelter stalled between the legion and Olympic Community Action Programs (OlyCAP), the future of the shelter is in limbo.
Cherish Cronmiller, director of OlyCAP, said she wasn’t quite sure what changed over at the Marvin G. Shields Memorial Post No. 26, but previously-agreeable lease terms have since become contentious.
“It sounds like they may have had a change in their executive board or membership because none of the staff here seem to have had any indication that the legion was wanting the shelter to leave,” Cronmiller said. “These people seem a little tired of dealing with the shelter, there was a lot of hostility in the room toward the sheltered population and the shelter being there.”
In response to Cronmiller’s characterization that the group wanted the shelter out of its basement, American Legion Adjutant Christopher Bates disagreed.
“I couldn’t say that was a true statement,” he said.
Bates added that the legion had offered a proposed lease and an accompanying “memorandum of understanding” but Cronmiller had simply refused to sign it.
He said the legion still remains open to a lease agreement with OlyCAP.
According to Cronmiller, this issue presented itself when the time came to renew the previous lease and memorandum. That agreement was extended after the start of the pandemic last year and expired June 30. OlyCAP administers the shelter services and outreach in conjunction with the Community Outreach Association Shelter Team.
A recent development
Usually, Cronmiller said things were pretty straightforward.
OlyCAP would “send them over the lease and the MOU, it gets signed, comes back, no big deal,” she said.
“This year, it’s a completely new lease agreement,” she said.
What stood out to Cronmiller at first was the addition of a $1,000 monthly rent rate for the shelter and an increased percentage of the coverage for utilities costs, from about 50 percent to about 70 percent.
“We were already paying a pretty good percentage [of the utilities]; we were at half for almost all of the utilities,” she explained. “By increasing the percentage, that essentially means that we’re paying for their upstairs. In the next year, whatever events they’re holding in that hall or with their bar being open, we’re paying for it.”
Bates, however, said the legion learned during a review of the lease that the $1,000 rent was much lower than other similarly sized spaces in the area.
An increase to the staff-to-resident ratio, prohibition of non-resident access to shower and bathroom facilities, and a lack of a renewable lease were also other updates that left Cronmiller concerned.
She said she had been prepared to meet the board’s request for more rent and increased utilities payments, but she wanted to work with them to create a compromise that would allow for staff to have the discretion to permit shelter access for people they deemed suitable.
“We were just going to acquiesce to the money issue. We understood that maybe to some extent they were upset in seeing what has happened at the fairgrounds,” Cronmiller said. “When I got there … they hadn’t changed anything in the lease and they said they weren’t going to entertain that.”
In a Monday interview with The Leader, Bates said he certainly didn’t think the fairgrounds were an example of a successful answer to the issue of homeless housing, but he added that the situation at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds had no bearing on the board’s decision on a new lease with OlyCAP.
Bates also said he didn’t think any significant restrictions were added into the agreement.
“There weren’t any particular restrictions over what they’d already been accustomed,” he said. “I don’t know why they are particularly taking that one to issue.”
Previously OlyCAP paid $60 a year for rent. According to Bates, an increase to the rent seemed appropriate.
“Why not? It’s a rented space, so why not charge rent for it?” Bates asked. “It’s a reasonable rent. I don’t see that it changes a thing to their access to [the shelter]. They were being charged a peppercorn rent before, we just upped the amount slightly.”
As for what he thinks should happen to the shelter at the American Legion post, the adjutant said he was unsure whether it should remain in its current location.
“At the present time, I don’t know,” Bates said.
“What I will say is I don’t think it’s an ideal place to have a shelter. How would you like to live in a basement?”
Cronmiller said her meeting with the American Legion’s executive board left her with the impression that they were ready to see the shelter move somewhere else.
“It was pretty rough, I’m not going to lie,” she said.
Cronmiller returned to the county for further advice on how to proceed.
Addressing the issue before the Jefferson County Affordable Housing Task Force during a July 14 meeting, Cronmiller announced she had not gone forward with the updated agreement.
“Clearly they don’t want to continue to have the emergency shelter there, so with that in mind, I didn’t sign the lease,” she told task force members.
During the meeting, the director explained that she was uncomfortable simply agreeing to the lease considering the costs that were likely to be incurred as a result of the proposed rate hikes.
“I didn’t feel like I should be unilaterally making decisions about an emergency shelter for the county and the city, especially given the money,” she continued. “When we calculated it, we’re looking at least $70,000 extra for the year. I think that’s on the low side.”
As officials deliberate what comes next for the proposed lease, Cronmiller said she’s begun reaching out to hotels in the area as an alternative to house the shelter’s 15 residents.
But, she added, it was likely that OlyCAP would have to agree to the new lease terms given that few opportunities exist for alternative locations.