Lewis County donates $35,000 to project to house homeless Centralia students


The Board of Lewis County Commissioners unanimously voted Tuesday to provide $35,000 to a project to house homeless students in the Centralia School District.

The move comes after the Centralia City Council voted last week to donate $5,000 from the city’s undesignated fund. The project has raised a total of $62,000, so far, which will fund housing for eight students to live in the CHI apartments at Centralia College through August.

On Monday, Centralia Deputy Mayor Cameron McGee and Mayor Kelly Smith Johnston made their pitch to the commissioners asking for county funds for the project.

According to Smith Johnston, the project is currently focused on students over 18 years old. Currently, the Centralia School District has 16 homeless students over 18 years of age.

“For me, the cost versus the benefit to society is a huge return on investment,” Smith Johnston said Monday. “This is preventative care. Let’s get them supported. Let’s get them graduated with their high school degree. Let’s help them get on track leading into adulthood in a way that feels like ‘my community is behind me, my government is behind me, I can do this.’ ”

The CHI apartments, which opened last fall and are not at full occupancy, can house 110 students. The apartments include four rooms with two beds each and common areas with full kitchens.

For each student, the program costs $770 a month, which funds utilities, internet access and housing.

The plan is to house eight students from April 1 through Aug. 31 while working to find a more permanent housing solution. They will enroll in Centralia College’s Running Start program, making them eligible for housing at CHI apartments, which are exclusively for Centralia College students.

“This is something that the City of Centralia leaning in, and asking its citizens to lean in on, is going to show the state this is how the community wants to support our students,” Director of Public Health and Social Services Meja Handlen said. “Please give us backing, in the form of a grant, that will actually serve our students, not the provider, but the students.”

According to McGee, the group will look at expanding the program to other schools in the county.

“We want to pilot this and see what works,” Smith Johnston said. “It’s a really nice public, private partnership.”

During the meeting, Commissioner Sean Swope recalled being kicked out of his dad’s house when he turned 18.

“I wouldn’t have been on any list,” Swope said. “I got lucky, and there was a family that I had known for probably a month at a church I started attending, who welcomed me to come live with him, which was fantastic and I’m so grateful today. But this provides an opportunity where a student feels that this is their own place, and it just gives them an opportunity to succeed.”

Others involved in setting up Scholars Haven include:

• Centralia Deputy Mayor Cameron McGee

• Lewis County Commissioner Sean Swope

• Centralia High School teacher David Bligh

• Centralia High School counselor Rose Waterfield

• Centralia College Vice President of Student Services Robert Cox

• United Way of Lewis County Executive Director Annie Oien

• Alice Menke of the Silver Agency

Those interested in donating can send money to the United Way of Lewis County marked for Scholars Haven. To donate, visit https://tinyurl.com/44tuat6y or the United Way office at 450 NW Pacific Ave. in Chehalis.