Homeless seeks shelter as numbers rise, options diminish

Because of the worsening COVID-19 pandemic, many people are facing homelesssness for the first time.

And Whidbey Island is not immune to this.

Whidbey Homeless Coalition Executive Director Jonathan Kline said that, throughout this year, the organization has helped a number of newly homeless people, including families.

“What we have noticed is a lot of people coming through our shelters and contacting us for assistance that we have never had any contact with before,” Kline said.

The Point in Time Count for 2020, done earlier this year, recorded that 143 homeless people were counted in Island County, although Kline said this number is usually an underestimate.

Of the 143 counted, 78 were completely unsheltered, and 65 were sheltered, meaning they were enrolled in a shelter program but not in a home of their own.

Kline said there have been more people than years past staying at the Haven, the night-to-night emergency shelter in Oak Harbor.

To date, no one staying at the Haven and Langley’s House of Hope has contracted the virus.

“We haven’t had a single one of our guests test positive for COVID,” Kline said, crediting the new safety protocols of the two shelters in helping to keep away the virus.

The coalition also began a new outreach program this year, with initial seed funding from the Whidbey Community Foundation, to help people at risk of becoming homeless. This can be as simple as providing support systems or talking with people to personally troubleshoot their situation so they can avoid homelessness, Kline explained.

So far the new program has helped 100 people, including 25 children. Kline said seven families were helped with rental assistance and 42 households were helped with food assistance.

But for others, the situation of being without a permanent place to call home can be more complex.

Kline acknowledged that within the past five to six months, there has been an increase in people looking for places to park an RV or motorhome where they may be living.

“There’s really not a whole lot of options for the folks in that situation,” he said.

On South Whidbey, the only place with electricity hook-ups is the Whidbey Island Fairgrounds, where some island residents are staying while trying to figure out their next steps.

Such is the case for Camren Procopio, a South Whidbey man severely impacted by mental illness. A group of community members have joined together to form a guardian team for him.

Hahna Luna, who connected with Procopio, has thrown her full support behind him. She is joined by others in the community who helped to secure him an RV where he now lives.

“Camren is amazing when his needs are met,” Luna said. “He’s like a poet, a philosopher, a genius.”

He speaks in poetry and metaphors, she added, which can be confusing to some people. He also loves to collect books out of respect for the people who wrote them.

Procopio’s guardian team includes Luna, his stepfather Brad Rice, Justin Hoops, who helped him obtain his RV, and Brian Holliston, who is also living at the fairgrounds in his RV and is battling a terminal illness. Several other community members have volunteered their help also.

“Anyone with mental illness is escalating right now,” Luna said. “People who don’t even know they have mental illness are wandering around in shock right now.”

Procopio, she said, is especially confused and frightened by people wearing masks and does not understand what is happening with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Procopio’s progress can be followed on the Facebook page, “Guardians of Camren Langley WA.”

Rice said he has known Procopio since he was about 7 or 8 years old.

“He’s quite resilient and he doesn’t really ask for much,” Rice said of his stepson, who has been homeless on and off for about the past six years.

Rice’s biggest hope for Procopio is that he will be able to find a place to stay where people know where he is and where he will have access to food and social services.

He doesn’t like staying in shelters and prefers to be on his own.

Procopio has been staying at the fairgrounds, although the current policy in place won’t allow for him to do so much longer.

Port of South Whidbey Executive Director Stan Reeves said when the COVID crisis began last March, the port, which manages the fairgrounds, relaxed its enforcement of the two-week stay policy.

“Over the summer that became problematic because some of the people staying long-term in the campgrounds began abusing the campground rules — some folks even began planting permanent gardens — and we began receiving complaints from local residents about the long-term campers,” Reeves said.

The port decided to begin enforcing the two-week stay policy again in October. Two-week stays are allowed within a 30-day period.

Luna argued that this is not nearly enough time for the individuals who are living in their vehicles, especially those who are elderly, have disabilities or special needs. She has publicly called for social workers, civil leaders, nonprofits and churches to come together and acknowledge an emergency COVID crisis.

“We are all in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat,” she said.

“Some of us don’t even have a life preserver; some of us are floating out in the cold water.”

Rice said he sees the fairgrounds as an opportunity to provide more shelter to people who are in situations similar to his stepson’s.

“It’s underutilized,” he said. “There’s a lot of spaces and only two campers show up, and there are no events now. It seems like a natural place to have a shelter with water and bathrooms and electricity.”

Rice owns a boat-building business and has made Procopio a trailer to carry his belongings around in.

Rice suggested building a micro house village might be a solution for people in need of long-term housing.

“It seems like if everyone was in a sort of organized camp, it would be easier to make sure people are staying healthy and safe,” he said.

People who want to help Procopio can either contact the Facebook page or reach out to Rice directly at 206-784-5077.

Kline said that the Haven provides emergency shelter for people in need of its services.

The Whidbey Homeless Coalition is also looking to purchase a permanent facility near Coupeville. The organization received a grant from the state Department of Commerce that will allow the members to explore options.

Currently, things are still in the planning and permitting phases, but Kline is hopeful the building could be the place to move the operations of Haven.

“We’re hoping that given the emergency situation — the state of Washington around homelessness and COVID-19 — that the county permitting and planning department will act fast and allow us to make this building purchase so we can provide more steady services to people during these weird times,” Kline said.