Future of Astoria Warming Center unclear

Sep. 30—After operating a seasonal overnight shelter since 2014, the future of the Astoria Warming Center is unclear.

The warming center's primary mission is to provide an emergency shelter to keep people from dying outdoors during the winter.

The nonprofit's leaders say there has been discussion about bringing in another agency, or agencies, to operate an overnight shelter from the warming center's location at the First United Methodist Church.

"While the specifics of those partnerships are uncertain, we intend to ensure that weather-dependent services are available for those in need this year," Tiffany Sanford, a board member of the warming center, said in a statement.

"The AWC has always believed in the need for a permanent, year-round shelter in Astoria. We believe it's in the best interest of our clients for local agencies to work together, and we are very interested in collaborating with other organizations, agencies, and individuals who can and will work towards this goal. The specifics of how we will operate this winter are uncertain, but we are committed to doing all we can to provide a safe, warm place to sleep to those in need."

Internal communications obtained by The Astorian have painted a picture of disarray at the organization. Some communications also point to discussions about whether to open for the upcoming season.

Meanwhile, the organization has continued to see significant upheaval in leadership.

Teresa Barnes, who resigned as executive director this summer, is the second executive director to depart in the past two years. In that time, many of the original board members and staff have left, and there has been swift turnover in board presidents.

Most recently, Ron Maxted, a longtime board member, resigned as board president in late September.

While Barnes resigned as executive director, she has continued to speak publicly on behalf of the organization, and emails show she has continued to influence decisions.

When The Astorian asked the board to clarify Barnes' role, Sanford said Barnes continues to volunteer with the warming center, but is not in an administrative or leadership position.

Other organizations, including Filling Empty Bellies, Clatsop Community Action and Columbia Pacific Coordinated Care Organization, have expressed a commitment to supporting the warming center.

During an Astoria homelessness solutions task force meeting Thursday, Osarch Orak, the director of Filling Empty Bellies, said he is working with the warming center and will collaborate with the nonprofit in any way possible. Filling Empty Bellies, which is under the umbrella of LiFEBoat Services, has been working toward creating a year-round overnight shelter at its building on Commercial Street.

Viviana Matthews, the executive director of Clatsop Community Action, said the agency is looking to partner and help in any way that ensures people have a place to go in the winter. Clatsop Community Action operates a warming center in Seaside in partnership with Helping Hands Reentry Outreach Centers.

Matthews said a potential closure of the warming center in Astoria would create a huge gap.

Clatsop Community Action has helped provide funding to the warming center since 2019. The agency passed through a total of $50,000 in state grant funding for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, but not since then.

Internal communications at the warming center revealed a dispute between Barnes and Clatsop Community Action over the reporting requirements for the grant funding.

When asked to clarify, Matthews said the state has reporting requirements, which includes collecting data on people who stay at the warming center and participation in the annual point-in-time count, a count of the homeless population that helps determine funding allocations.

"Due to the lack of participation in those two items, we were not able to continue funding the Astoria Warming Center," Matthews said. "When an agency fails to do those items, they will not be able to receive funding from us because those are just the requirements we have to follow ourselves."

The warming center declined to comment on questions regarding the grant.

The Columbia Pacific Coordinated Care Organization said it provided the warming center a capacity-building grant through the regional housing impact fund in 2020, but declined to specify the amount.

Leslie Ford, the housing, strategy and development adviser at Columbia Pacific Coordinated Care Organization, said it was challenging for the warming center to complete the reporting requirements and that no additional funding was requested.

Ford was supportive of the idea of consolidating resources, and said she wants to support whatever happens next.

"It's a critical part of the safety net," Ford said. "And the safety net is fragile ... and it's really challenged right now."