YAKIMA — On Tuesday morning, city of Yakima code administration manager Joe Caruso was at the Chamber of Commerce building, where a homeless man had been sleeping in the doorway. The police took his name and “trespassed” him, warning that he could be arrested if he returned to that location.
“Then I saw him at the Depot at 4, and he condensed all his stuff and he’s going to a motel,” Caruso said. “That guy was sleeping (Tuesday) morning in a cocoon in 15 degree weather, and (Tuesday) afternoon, ‘Hey Joe, thanks a lot, I’m going to a hotel!’ That’s what we’re doing.”
The Depot is private property owned by Yakima Neighborhood Health Services at 602 E. Yakima Ave.
With the city working closely with Yakima Neighborhood Health Services at the Northwest Community Action Center, 28 people in Yakima have gotten off the streets and into hotels and motels since Dec. 1, when the weather took a turn for the worst.
NCAC received $30,000 in hotel/motel vouchers from the Yakima Valley Conference of Governments to assist homeless people throughout Yakima County.
Another 21 seven-day vouchers have been issued to homeless people in the Lower Valley, NCAC emergency services manager Janice Gonzalez said.
“We pretty much have filled up the hotels that are willing to take our hotel vouchers,” she said.
On average, the rooms the vouchers apply to cost about $42 a night, cheaper for the weeklong stays than if they were to pay by the night, Gonzalez said.
In Yakima, Caruso said he and Neighborhood Health have been encouraging people to condense their belongings or store some items at the Depot so they can go into the hotels.
It’s even fixed so folks can bring their dogs into hotels with them, which has been a big barrier in the past. And couples that don’t want to be separated — as they would be if they tried to stay in other shelters — can stay together.
Three families that were living in their cars have gotten vouchers, Neighborhood Health homeless services director Annette Rodriguez said. People who are severely disabled and in wheelchairs also are being prioritized.
The agencies are hoping that YVCOG approves another $130,000 to continue those hotel vouchers through the winter, Caruso said.
Between the extreme winter weather shelters, Union Gospel Mission and hotel vouchers, “We have plenty of beds,” Caruso said. If people still choose to set up a tent outside, “The only choice is to arrest someone. We don’t want to do that; up to this point, we haven’t arrested anyone.”
People are still sleeping out back of the Depot; Neighborhood Health won’t ban the homeless from camping there. The only times people are trespassed is if they are behaving in ways that harm or endanger others, Rodriguez said.
With everyone’s collaborative efforts in the past week, Caruso says: “Downtown Yakima’s like a ghost town.”