Shelter Across Okanogan County

As the days get shorter, the leaves start changing colors and the overnight temperatures drop, thoughts turn to our community members that are considered homeless. Did you know that Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) describes being homeless as a “an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence; and an individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations…”.

During Okanogan County’s annual Point-In-Time Count (PIT) in January 2023, OCCAC staff, community partners and volunteers collected over 600 forms for people in our community that consider themselves homeless. Due to HUD’s broad categories of that definition, only 290 were accepted. What that means is that on January 26, 2023, almost 300 community members of Okanogan County slept in a place that is not meant for habitation (usually a car, abandoned building, or park bench) or were in an emergency shelter. Three hundred too many!

OCCAC currently utilizes local motels for shelter, but that isn’t stable. Housing stability is real issue in our very rural area that needs, at minimum, 2000 units of affordable housing. The annual PIT Count doesn’t take into consideration people who are couch-surfing, temporarily staying with friends and/or family, multi-generational families living in small 1–2-bedroom homes, or people living deep in the rural areas in encampments. Okanogan County is in a housing crisis, like every other county in the state, and OCCAC is doing what we can.

We utilize motel rooms when we can, but there aren’t enough. We utilize the emergency overnight shelter, but it isn’t big enough for everyone. We give out tents, sleeping bags, hygiene supplies, blankets, but who wants to sleep in a tent in freezing weather? What we need is affordable housing, living wage jobs and stability for homeless community members. Because that is what we are, a community. If you would like to help, please reach out to OCCAC and volunteer for the annual PIT in time count, donate to OCCAC, or better yet, talk to your neighbors, county, state officials and tell them we want affordable housing to be a priority in Okanogan County.

Our Unsung Heroes: Food Pantry Volunteers

While food banks and pantries heavily rely on food and financial donations, the very backbone of every food pantry in Okanogan County is the volunteers. Food banks and food pantries are run entirely by volunteers, and the amount of work that goes into that, is unfortunately, very often overlooked.

Did you know?

Volunteers at food banks and food pantries: 

  •  Run every aspect of the food pantry from
  • Set up the business side of a food pantry including the business license, 501c3 nonprofit tax status, and other required documentation.
  • Plan, coordinate, recruit, train, run the operation, do inventory, and complete reports to stay in compliance with funders.
  • Sometimes get yelled at, complained to, and treated poorly by clients.
  • Do not get paid or incentivized in any way.
  • Are very underappreciated and often go unrecognized for their contributions to the community.
  • Have the biggest hearts and keep coming back.

Who and where and why?

Volunteers are essential in a food bank and/or pantry. Their “jobs” range from unloading trucks of food, weighing food donations, gleaning fresh produce, stocking shelves, to taking and tracking inventory.  They also help recruit and train volunteers.  When the doors open to clients, volunteers sign in and track client activity plus load bags and boxes of food, which they packed, into client vehicles. Every can, jar, bottle, package, or beverage in those boxes are put there by a volunteer. A volunteer that might already be working 40-hours a week at their full-time job, or a mom that helps out while the kids are in school and the spouse is at work, or a kind-hearted retired individual that just wants to be of assistance in their community however they can. These are people that have huge hearts, dedication, passion, determination, incredible work ethic, and “just want to help”.

Asda and Burngreave Foodbank’s volunteer heroes help people get food bank help safely during ...

Food banks and pantries are nonprofits, which means these volunteers are not only working with limited resources, time, and food, but doing so without compensation. Volunteers look to their community, friends, and family for additional support through recruiting more volunteers to the day-to-day operations. The process just to start a food bank or pantry is lengthy and requires a lot of work and time.

The Drive to Help

Once all of the legal paperwork side of things is set up to start a food bank or pantry, then the hard work starts to find food, volunteers, transportation to get food to the food pantry, space for the food bank or pantry, and funding to pay for everything from the building to refrigerators, freezers, shelving, counters, tables, cleaning supplies, bags/boxes, down to the smallest detail like trash bags.

This starts with a person’s idea or dream to feed hungry people. Once a food bank or pantry is up and running fully, it takes anywhere from 15 volunteers for a smaller food pantry to over 50 volunteers at a larger food pantry to keep the pantry running in Okanogan County. Imagine those numbers in a more populated area!

While all these volunteers are advocating for more food and working hard constantly to get that food to their clients, following all food safety, guidelines and regulations required by both state and federal levels with various degrees, all of this is usually gone unnoticed. They keep doing the hard work, with smiles on their faces, and most of it goes with very little to no recognition.

So next time you see a food pantry or food bank volunteer, take time to acknowledge the important role they play in helping feed the community by saying “thank you.”

Serving Veterans in Okanogan County: Supportive Services for Veteran’s Families

Supportive Services for Veteran’s Families (SSVF) is a program within the Okanogan County Community Action Council (OCCAC) that aims to serve Veterans and their families who have served at least one day of active duty. Whether Veterans need assistance finding or maintaining housing, locating ID’s (DD214 or ID), or securing benefits, our team works directly with Veterans from all military branches to ensure their needs are being met.

Jimmy Relaford, an Army Veteran, shared with us his experience navigating the social service world after losing his house in the Whitmore Fire in 2021.

Jimmy Relaford, Army Veteran

“I had built a little house on some leased property East of Omak Lake. I lost everything,” he explained.

“Because I was leasing property and had built the house outright, there was no available help. Nothing. I went from couch surfing to renting out a room, but nothing that could be long-term.

I had spent my life old school; you work for what you need kind of thing. It was my pride that stopped me initially from calling and asking for help. That just wasn’t something that you do, but it changed my life as soon as I did.

They did most of the legwork and heavy lifting, they got me into an apartment with a new bed, a mini fridge, the whole set-up. Within two months of calling, I was in a new apartment. They (SSVF) changed my life.”

Supportive Services for Veteran’s Families team aims to serve the Veterans and their families in our community. If you are a Veteran or know a Veteran in need, please contact us at (509) 422-4041.

Striving for Better Nutrition in Food Assistance Programs

In Okanogan County, the box or bag of food pantry clients receive each week reflects some thought and planning about the nutritional value of the foods that go into the box.  Can we do better?  Yes.  

Working for a New Nutrition Policy

Recently, Okanogan County Community Action Council teamed up with the Washington Food Coalition (WFC) and the American Heart Association to write and adopt a nutrition policy to guide purchases, donation procurement and distribution to nine county food pantries that support the food needs of 11,000 individuals each month. The policy utilizes the Healthy Eating Research Nutrition Guidelines (HER) as a tool to guide their distribution of nutritious, culturally relevant foods that support positive and healthy outcomes by sourcing from the local food ecosystem and investing back in the local economy. Although we are not 100% there yet, we are making strides every day to do better, through educating food pantries and clients, purchasing fresh produce from local farms directly and thoroughly researching new food distributors as we begin to partner with them. 

The policy was adopted in December 2022 and will provide internal guidance toward purchasing local, sustainable foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-sodium options from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), female or veteran owned farms and businesses when possible. The policy also directs OCCAC to avoid purchasing items that detract from good heart health, such as sugar-sweetened beverages and candy. To ensure the foods we are distributing meet the needs of our community, OCCAC regularly solicits feedback to identify foods that align with community requests and help address pervasive cardiovascular risk factors within rural communities by referencing the HER guidelines.  

Okanogan County Community Action and The American Heart Association

Community Action and The American Heart Association connected through the Washington Food Coalition’s (WFC) Registered Dietician nutrition consultant who works through shared goals to create healthier, more equitable food environments as reflected in WFC’s Health Centered Food Banking Project. The Washington Food Coalition and The American Heart Association provided stipend funds to compensate OCCAC’s time as well as translated nutrition education materials in Spanish and English. 

The American Heart Association is committed to addressing rural health inequities and has issued a call to action to improve the health of rural populations by addressing the social determinants of health to reduce urban-rural disparities, investing in research, supporting policy reform and developing rural-specific, community-guided solutions. 

Beyond tackling food access challenges, Okanogan County Community Action Council offers a growing portfolio of community services that address overlapping needs that impact health, including financial assistance for rental and energy payments, veteran support services and housing access. 

Look Around, Look Within: Your surroundings say a lot about your mental health

Take a moment to consider your surroundings. Do you feel safe? Do you have access to health care and food? Does your home support you, both physically and mentally?

May is Mental Health Month, and a good time to challenge yourself to look at your world and how different factors can affect your mental health.

Where a person is born, lives, learns, works, plays, and gathers, as well as their economic stability and social connections, are part of what is called “social determinants of health” (SDOH). The more these factors work in your favor means you are more likely to have better mental well-being. However, when it seems like the world is working against you, your mental health can suffer.

While many parts of your environment can be out of your control, there are steps you can take to change your space and protect your well-being.

• Work toward securing safe and stable housing: Staying in a home environment that does not feel safe or stable because you feel you don’t have another option wears on your mental health.  Moving can be challenging in our area with a shortage of affordable housing and for other reasons like finances and age.  There are a few things you can try, such as reaching out to local agencies to secure new housing, removing safety hazards in the home, or finding another space (such as a community center or friend’s home) where you can get the comfort you are missing at home.

• Focus on your home: Consider keeping your space tidy, sleep-friendly, and well-ventilated. Surround yourself with items that help you feel calm and positive.

• Create bonds with your neighborhood and community: Get to know the people living around you, join or start neighbors-helping-neighbors groups, and support local businesses to challenge gentrification.

• Connect with nature: Hike in a forest, sit in a city park, bring a plant inside, or keep the shades open to absorb natural light.

If you’re taking steps to improve your surroundings but are still struggling with your mental health, you may be experiencing signs of a mental health condition. Take a free, private screening at to help you figure out what is going on and determine the next steps.

The world around us can be both positive and negative – bringing joy and sadness, hope and anxiety. Learn more about mental health and suggestions for making changes to improve and maintain mental well-being at Your Journey | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness.

600 People Without Housing: The 2023 Point-In-Time Count

Each year in January, Okanogan County agencies come together to participate in the Point-In-Time (PIT) Count to get a general census of the number of people in our community experiencing homelessness.  Supported by dozens of social service agencies, their staff, and volunteers, this year’s count tallied around 600 people living in conditions defined as homeless. 

Homelessness, as defined by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), includes people living outside, in shelters, in hotels, in RVs not connected to services (water, sewer, electricity), and multiple families living in the same household (doubling up).

Every county in the United States conducts the PIT Count in January.  In Okanogan, the PIT Count was completed between January 23rd and January 26th, 2023. Teams of volunteers were dispersed throughout the county to collect demographic information, traveling North to Oroville, South to Pateros, East to Nespelem, and West to Methow Valley.  People living without housing are asked some interview questions during the PIT Count, or volunteers may fill out the interview form on behalf of the person.  The system to collect the data is not perfect and some social service agencies estimate a more realistic count of people living without housing in Okanogan County could be between 3,500 and 5,500. 

Some of the data collected in the PIT Count includes information about the individual or family’s age, racial and ethnic background, where individuals or families have been staying, how long individuals or families have been experiencing homelessness, potential veteran status, and potential disability status.

So, what is the point of the PIT Count? Not only does completing the Point-In-Time Count provide social service agencies around the county with a better idea of the number of homeless people we are serving, but the data collected is referenced when social service agencies apply for state and federal grant funding. Knowing how many people are experiencing homelessness in our county can help us to better prepare and serve those individuals and families.

Homelessness is a humanitarian crisis occurring not just in Okanogan County, but nationwide. Increased cost of living, high rental prices, long low-income housing waitlists, and a grocery cost increase of nearly 12% (USA Today, 2023), all contribute to homelessness. Nearly 59% of all Americans are one large medical bill, natural disaster, or missed paycheck away from being homeless according to a study completed by Charles Schwab & Co. in 2019, and that was BEFORE the COVID-19 Pandemic.

We know homelessness is a problem. Using the data from the 2023 Point-In-Time Count will hopefully allow us as an agency, as well as other social service agencies in the county, to provide financial assistance to those in need, start the process of building more affordable housing, house more of the individuals and families experiencing homelessness, and continue to advocate for the policies that support our neighbors and community members experiencing homelessness.

If you would like to sign up to volunteer to help with the 2024 PIT Count, please give me a call (509) 422-4041 or send me an  We’ll begin organizing the 2024 PIT Count in the Fall of 2023.  For more information about homelessness in Okanogan County, go to

More Food Needed for More People in Need

By Rena Shawver, Executive Director, Okanogan County Community Action Council (OCCAC)

It’s hard to imagine food shortages in a community like ours which is surrounded by agriculture.  But food scarcity is real in Okanogan County.  

The number of county residents relying on food assistance grew from 8,000 in 2020 to 11,000 in 2022.  While more people rely on food assistance, less food is available.    

Image of donated food for the food bank. Pasta, olive oil, peanut butter, canned goods and beans.
Food shortages means more food donations are needed. Shelf stable items like crackers, pasta and canned goods are always a welcome site at the food pantries.

Why is this happening?   

Several things contribute to the need for food and the food shortages occurring in our community:    

Poverty.  Lack of living-wage jobs, inflation, and systems that hold people in poverty all contribute to an increasing number in need of food assistance. One in three Okanogan residents used one of the nine food pantries in the county last year.

Rising cost of transporting food. Trucking food supplies to rural areas is getting more and more expensive with rising fuel costs; one reason cited by Second Harvest in Spokane for cutting food distribution to Okanogan last November. Last year, Second Harvest provided 511,000 pounds of staple foods like meat, poultry, and fresh produce to Okanogan County; between $50,000-$100,000 for Hunger Relief monthly.  Although Second Harvest has resumed providing food to Okanogan County, OCCAC now needs to travel to Wenatchee twice a month to pick the food up.  So, the cost of transportation has been shifted to rural communities; an added expense not adequately covered by funding sources.

Processing systems. About 200 food processing facilities operate in Washington State, mostly processing fruits, vegetables, and seafood.  Much of the food processed here is sold out of state, sometimes only to return to local markets. Meats must be processed and packaged by a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) certified facility, which there are none in Okanogan County.  Foods grown in Okanogan and processed elsewhere increases the price of the food and decreases the nutritional quality of the food.  Trucking food long distances increase carbon emissions, and the county loses the opportunity to use that food locally.

Storage. As the distribution center for the county’s nine food pantries, OCCAC does not have a food-storage warehouse, which is sorely needed. The ability to store shelf-staple food would allow OCCAC to better manage food distribution across the county, especially during shortages.  Further, the county needs a Food Hub to actively manage the collection, distribution, and marketing of food products from local and regional producers, to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail and institutional demand for food pantries, hospitals, and schools.   

Bureaucracy. While we don’t want to bite the hand that feeds us, lack of attention to the food scarcity issues between big agriculture and government is getting in the way. The issues involved are complex, to be sure, but contribute to food scarcity in an agriculturally rich America.  We must urge our elected leaders to take food shortages for humans seriously, explore the systems that lead to food scarcity, and to preserve the funding for food assistance programs, like SNAP (food stamps), that support one in four Americans.

The bottom line is that our food systems are broken. 

What can be done?

While OCCAC and others make our community’s needs known to those who can make significant change including the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA), NW Harvest, elected officials, and the USDA, we also need to come together as a community to take care of our own.

Your cash and food donations make a difference.

Since Second Harvest dropped deliveries to Okanogan County in November, donations have been pouring into OCCAC.  Save the Children provided $25,000; United Health Care provided $35,000, and Okanogan County came to the rescue with $200,000. These funds will help food pantries purchase foods through local grocers through March while WSDA, our major supplier of food for Hunger Relief programs, works the shortage issue.

Private donations in December reached an all-time high of nearly $20,000 with $5,000 coming from the 12 Tribes Casino and a few private donations of $1,000-$2,000.  Contributions of $25-$200 increased as well; these are the most heartfelt donations as they come from people who are not wealthy, but care about their neighbors.  

Local grocers have increased their donations of food and some businesses and organizations are running food drives.  Students from the Okanogan School District ran a Penny Drive for the food pantries and turned in a check for $352.52.  These contributions are significant and add up.

We are grateful and appreciate all the community support.  Although this recent food crisis raised an eyebrow to a continuing issue, ongoing support is needed year-round.  

If you would like to help, contact OCCAC at 509-422-4041 about a food drive or go to to donate.