MOUNT VERNON — For the first time, Skagit County opened the Mount Vernon Senior Center on Christmas Day as a safe and warm place for the county’s homeless to spend the holiday.

Sarah Hinman, division manager with the county Public Health’s Housing & Community Services, volunteered to supervise Wednesday, offering what she said was a necessary service.

She said the county knows of at least 45 seniors seeking housing assistance, meaning they’re likely living on the street or in their cars.

“There are quite a few people who don’t have a safe place to be on Christmas,” she said. “Just a place to be warm and be around people.”

Keith Johnson and Marvin Yates, two of the homeless people spending the day at the center, said they were grateful for the opportunity to spend the holiday with friends and out of the cold.

“(Without this), we’d be trying to sleep in our vehicles,” Johnson said. “It’s nice to have the powers that be show us a little compassion.”

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Hinman said as of 1 p.m., about 20 people had stopped by for snacks, a cup of coffee, or a place to get out of the cold.

Throughout the day, several people came by to drop off gifts like warm clothes, toiletries, blankets, tarps and food.

Among them was County Commissioner Lisa Janicki, who stopped by with $15 Target and Safeway gift cards to distribute.

She said she was glad the county-owned building could provide vulnerable members of the community with a little respite from the cold, though she said the county will continue to provide more.

“There’s not enough, but we’re going to get through this,” she said.

Commissioners have a meeting with the county’s four city mayors on Jan. 22, she said, to talk about a permanent day center for the homeless — a resource that doesn’t currently exist.

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Johnson, one of the founders of the advocacy group Welcome Home Skagit, said the opening of the senior center is proof that relationships between the homeless population and local government are improving.

He said homeless people today are more likely to be heard and met with support and assistance from cities and the county, compared with a couple years ago.

“The bridge building we’ve done over the last couple years has been tremendous,” he said. “If we work with them, they work with us.”

This progress is what he’s thankful for this Christmas, he said.

The senior center will open to the homeless again on New Year’s Day, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Hinman said.