A program to shelter as many as 50 people at the Napa Valley Exposition was set to begin Thursday evening for its fourth winter season.

Merlot Hall at the Third Street fairgrounds will be opened by the Napa Valley Shelter Project at 5 p.m. to homeless county residents. The building is expected to house clients through mid-April depending on spring weather conditions, according to Linda S. Powers, who directs the shelter program for Community Action Napa Valley.

The Napa Valley Shelter Project runs year-around shelters for families and adults who commit to sobriety and self-improvement. The seasonal shelter at the Expo is intended for others who typically camp out during the good weather months.

The winter shelter, which has had five different homes in its 15 years, has been based at the Expo since 2009. Board members for the Expo at that time approved hosting the shelter after imposing conditions — including an enclosure containing a smoking area and a path to restrooms — to prevent the homeless from leaving Merlot Hall or loitering in other parts of the fairgrounds.

“There’s never been a problem; (residents) have paid attention to rules. We’ve not had one incident here,” Expo chief executive Joe Anderson said Tuesday. “If anybody’s asked to leave, either Napa police or the Sheriff’s Office escorts them out.”

People wishing to stay in the winter shelter first check into the Hope Center, day activity center for the homeless, at 1301 Fourth St., then are escorted to Merlot Hall at 5 p.m. each evening. Others with daytime jobs enter the Expo at 6:30 p.m., along with those referred to the shelter by county mental health staff or Queen of the Valley Medical Center, Powers said.

Check-out times are at 6 a.m. for the employed and 7:30 a.m. for others.

A special challenge for the coming winter is whether CANV can create room at the Expo for a few families to stay, since waiting times for families at other Napa shelters grew as long as two months last year, according to Powers.

“One of the requests I got this year was whether we could put a family into a cordoned-off area at the fairgrounds, and I don’t have an answer for that yet,” she said Wednesday. “The Samaritan Family Shelter’s already full and we have a very long waiting list, but we’ll find a way to juggle.”

Despite the winter shelter’s past struggles to find a permanent landing place, and the substance-abuse problems bedeviling many of the homeless, Powers called the program’s staff well equipped for the challenge.

“The issue is to not interrupt Expo activities or residents’ activities. We’re cognizant about being good neighbors for everybody,” she said. “These folks struggle — many have issues with drugs and alcohol — but I think we’re well-trained for the job.”

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