Last year, the shelter had 35 beds in portable units and had no running water. The new building has 40 beds, two kitchens, storage areas for donated items and bathrooms close by with multiple toilets and showers.

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CENTRALIA — “This is a blessing. This is a huge blessing,” said volunteer Patti Mills after her first look at the new location for the severe-weather shelter at an open house Tuesday night at the Southwest Washington Fairgrounds.

It was a sentiment that was echoed over and over by the members of Bethel Church, who look at the bigger, safer space with room to grow as an answer to their prayers. The shelter, which opens any night when the temperatures dip to 38 degrees or below starting Nov. 1, will be housed in the first building inside the fairgrounds’ main gate — what is typically the 4-H building during the Southwest Washington Fair.

This past year, the shelter was housed in two 14-foot by 66-foot rented portable units, which were just large enough for a total of 35 beds and had no running water.

“Last year they sat on their beds, they had to eat on their beds, they had to dress there and there was no common area where they could sit and visit,” said Laura Hasbrook, volunteer coordinator for the shelter.

Nevertheless, the shelter provided a total of 1,965 stays over 86 of the year’s coldest nights. This year, representatives from Bethel Church, which pays for the facility’s use fees, asked if it would be possible to use one of the permanent buildings on the fairgrounds instead of the portables. The new building boasts room for 40 beds and space for more in the future as well as two kitchens, storage areas for donated items and bathrooms close by with multiple toilets and showers. Bethel Associate Pastor Josh Gering explained that the new building’s rental will cost the church about the same as the portables did last year, but there will be a cost savings over the alternative of adding plumbing and more square footage to the rented portable units that he was considering for this year.

“I’m really looking forward to a better customer experience this year,” Gering said of the new space. “We have a place to hang out, become a family, build relationships. I believe any change in someone’s life comes from relationships.”

Before the severe-weather shelter being sited at the fairgrounds, there were concerns raised about safety, potential impact on fairground events as well as the fairgrounds themselves. Southwest Washington Fair Manager Tamara Hayes said in the end, the experience was overall a very positive one.

“I think there were fears there would be a lot of stuff left behind but they really did a great job and the fairgrounds were left like they found them,” Hayes said.

Hasbrook was quick to note she thought the shelter’s move was successful because of the many individuals, agencies and entities involved in it. She noted that small things like the Chehalis Police Department dropping in every night and local housing agencies working to get some of the guests into more permanent living situations made a huge difference.

“The cities are involved, the county is involved, law enforcement, it’s just such a joint effort and it’s fun to see how it all works together,” Hasbrook said.

But there’s a side to the shelter that’s harder to quantify for the volunteers who make the shelter happen. For them, the space is about giving people hope and following a calling. For them, success can’t be counted in numbers, but rather on the faces and in the stories of the people they help.

“If we get one of them off the street it’s a success,” said Dan Boes, who helps with logistics for the shelter. “Save one — it’s worth it.”