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Slideshow | The invisible people: Life on the streets is cold for Valley's homeless, but some groups are warming things up
Someday soon, Joey Bradshaw is going to be warm again. It will be only temporary, while he’s recovering from shoulder surgery in a transitional home, but he hopes that it will mark a turning point for him.
If all goes well, he envisions a quick recuperation, so he can get back to work soon, buy a cell phone and call his kids in Oregon to let them know he’s OK. Longer term, he might—maybe—be able to save some money and get a place, if he can find a roommate who’s not on drugs.
Until then, he says, picking his way through rocks on a bank of the South Fork of the Snoqualmie River, he’ll just enjoy his spectacular views of the elk, raccoons and other wildlife that go past his place, and continue to live with the cold, the wind, the midnight taggers and other vandals.
He ducks his head to walk under the bridge deck and then, straightening, gestures to a loose circle of huge rocks tucked up under the abutment. There’s a rumpled blanket lying on the ground in the center of the circle, and a small candle.
“This is me,” he says.
A short way upstream, under a different bridge, Greg Hoeffer, commonly known as Frosty, doesn’t seem to mind the cold. He’s wrapped his bare feet in several layers of plastic bags, and tied a blanket around his middle. He doggedly avoids answering North Bend Police Chief Mark Toner’s questions about whether he’s warm enough, or needs anything.
It’s hard to say what Frosty does mind, aside from visitors. One second, he’s talking about the rafting accident (never happened) that stranded him here yesterday, and the next, he says, “I’ve been here all my life.” A few minutes later, he asks, “You got a food bank around here?” (It’s within walking distance.) He’s not from this planet, he says, and has no age or memory. Parachutes, Andy Warhol, and his advancement beyond the use of names and numbers also figure in his conversation with Toner, who’s checking on several known homeless camps.
“A hundred percent of the time, it’s like that with him,” Toner says as he leaves Frosty in solitude.
The Upper Valley has a small, but diverse homeless population. Estimates from agencies like the Mount Si Helping Hand Food Bank, church groups and Hopelink all put the count at between 20 and 30 people, but no one knows for sure how many they are. Some of them are struggling poor like Joey, who has an income but can’t afford the rent. Some have run away or been disowned from their families, some lost everything to addictions or mental illness, and some just prefer life on the street.
Harold Erland, a representative for the Salvation Army and the outreach efforts of the Valley Ministerial Association and North Bend Community Church, sees homeless every week, during his office hours at the church next to the food bank, and he knows many of their stories.
“We have a lot of long-term homeless,” he said. For some, “It’s their choice to be independent… They don’t want interference in their lives, but if they ask, we help.”
The hitch is that very few ask.
Owen Rooney, a volunteer at the food bank in North Bend is starting to feel frustrated by that tendency. For the last month, he’s been connecting with a few homeless people, to find out what they need to get through the winter, and trying to reach more.
“Man, it is hard as hell to find these people!” he declared.
Although he’s supplied the people who he does know with the essentials to make it through the winter, mainly tents and tarps, he wants to reach the others he’s sure are out in the woods, in need.
“These people really do need some help,” he said. “During the summer, you don’t hear about homeless people, but when the first cold weather came, that’s when everybody went ‘uh-oh!’ … those Sally Bags are nice, but they won’t keep you alive at night.”
People have died in camp, Toner said, but none in the past few years.
Donations of socks, gloves, hats, and personal products for “Sally Bags” have poured into the food bank since operations manager Krista Holmberg introduced the idea in mid-November. Volunteers keep bags in their cars, and can give them to homeless people when they see them.
Larger donations like propane tanks and propane burners have also been arriving steadily, in part thanks to Rooney, who let people know what his homeless contacts were asking for.
Rooney’s not at all surprised.
“The Snoqualmie Valley is really a generous group of people,” he said, “I guess it’s because it’s smaller towns.”
Many groups are doing outreach programs for the homeless. At the Mount Si Helping Hand Food Bank, Holmberg established a small section of items specifically for homeless people, such as foods that don’t need cooking, and cans with pull-top lids. Seven churches have joined efforts to serve a hot meal every Wednesday while the food bank is open, and have served more than 100 people weekly of late. Jane Rosenkranz is training and recruiting new crocheters to help her Calvary Chapel group create sleeping bag mats, which are then given to anyone who asks for one at the hot meal.
Erland manages funds for three groups, the Salvation Army, Valley Ministerial Association, and the North Bend Community Church, to provide bus passes for people who lack transportation, and emergency financial assistance such as the occasional hotel voucher for shelter. Hopelink offers the same services in the Lower Valley. King County Sheriff’s Deputies in North Bend distribute hats, gloves, boots, and sleeping bags to the homeless, when a volunteer or a grant has provided for them.
Toner tried, in vain, to give Frosty a pair of boots during his visit, and it’s clear that he’s tried before. With Joey, he has a mentor-like rapport, remembering some of Joey’s experiences —a stabbing for example—better than Joey does himself.
Toner feels that it’s part of his job to not only keep an eye on the outdoor residents of the city, but also to look out for them.
“Just because they’re homeless, doesn’t mean they’re crooks,” he said.
Homelessness itself isn’t illegal, just camping within city limits.
Some homeless are pretty good neighbors, too. Toner referred to three homeless men he’d recently met, who helped prevent a bridge on the Snoqualmie Valley Trail from burning on Monday, Dec. 19. One of the men rode his bicycle to a gas station to call the fire department, while the other two tried to put out the flames, which someone had started underneath the bridge in the creosote-soaked timbers.
Under Joey’s concrete bridge, there’s no fire hazard, but he can’t have a fire for warmth. It attracts too much attention. Instead, he jokes that the candle is his heat source.
The way he really stays warm is by moving. “I try to keep busy, keep my head right,” he said. Up at dawn every morning, Joey fills his day with errands and talks with his best friend, Richard, and church on Sundays.
“I’m usually good… I have a hard time sleeping anyway.”
Find help, give help
• To donate to help homeless people, or to get help yourself, the Valley has several resources:
• Salvation Army: Call the Bellevue office at 425-452-7300, or stop by the office at the North Bend Community Church on Wednesdays.
• Mount Si Helping Hand Food Bank: Call (425) 888-0096, visit http://mtsifoodbank.org, or stop by 122 E Third Street, North Bend.
• Sno-Valley Hopelink: Call (425) 333-4163, or stop by the office at 31957 E. Commercial St. Carnation. Closed on Fridays; http://www.hope-link.org/
If you are homeless and in need of supplies for the winter, contact Owen Rooney, Wednesdays at the food bank, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.