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In from the cold: Valley volunteers, churches, police helping the homeless take new directions
Empty beer cans littered the ground in front of an abandoned car wash, but there were still two full, sealed, and intact in their plastic-ring carrier.
"They'll probably be back tonight, then," said Carnation-Duvall Police Sergeant Lori Batiot, as she searched the area for the local people who she knew partied here.
The beers were sitting in plain sight, just outside the doors that are supposed to keep people from getting into one of the old wash bays. The doors open inward, though, so all anyone has to do is climb onto the hood of the huge truck blocking the doors and push to get inside, out of the rain and wind.
By morning, the beer was gone, and the smell of cigarette smoke, just a trace the night before, penetrated the area.
Batiot said this place, right in town but still secluded, is an occasional haunt of homeless people.
"But it depends on what your definition of homeless is," she added. The traditional definition, people sleeping out-of-doors, doesn't quite cover the problem in the lower Valley. Some people aren't quite to the point of sleeping outside at night, but they "couch-surf" with various people or stay in their garages. Others sleep in their cars, and a few just choose to sleep outside. One she knows of, who drinks at the car wash sometimes, has a home with his mother, but is an alcoholic who regularly gets so drunk he just goes to sleep on a sidewalk. Another is mentally ill, and says only meth makes him feel normal. He has parents who want to help him, but he sleeps in the woods by the river.
"He is simply not willing to give up meth," Batiot said. "He's said, 'I will never give up meth. I will do it forever.' He's got children, that he's got very limited visitation with and that's not a motivation to get off of it, and if that can't motivate him to want to change, what can we do?"
Another group of people, transients, make up a large number of the homeless encounters for law enforcement in the Valley. Batiot recalled one woman who just got off a bus in Duvall one day, shopping cart and all, and built a temporary shelter in the breezeway of a business. She stayed there two or three days, declined all offers of help, and then left on another bus.
"So, it really depends," Batiot said. "Right now we've got maybe five or six people in the Valley that we know about, and we deal with on a regular basis, but that's probably the tip of an iceberg of a homeless problem, once you start looking through that whole spectrum."
A North Bend woman, anonymous at her request, thinks more people need to look at the homeless problem, and see the people for who they are. During the hot meal served every Wednesday at the North Bend Community Church, she talked about the problem in terms of human isolation.
Homeless since 2009, she said, "I used to be one of those people who wouldn't give a homeless person the time of day. I had a job, an apartment and a bank account."
Now, she's couch-surfing, and she relies on outreach programs like the Mount Si Helping Hand Food Bank (http://mtsifoodbank.org) and the hot meal put on by area churches, but she often feels alone.
"Once you walk out the door, you don't see anyone for a week," she said, tears forming in her eyes.
She's in North Bend now because "It's familiar to me, it's safe," she said, but she plans to soon return to Seattle, where she stayed several months in a women's shelter and got culinary training through Fare Start (www.farestart.org). Seattle has the resources to support a homeless population, and homelessness doesn't have as much of a stigma there, she said.
"In downtown Seattle, they treat the homeless like royalty," she said, "like royalty."
In North Bend, she's certain that her past with drugs and alcohol—she admits she still uses, but not as much as she used to—and her homelessness have kept her from finding a job that would allow her to make a home again. And she's saddened by the fear and hostility people have toward the homeless.
"People aren't dangerous," she cried, "they're desperate. They're tired of being homeless, they're tired of being judged."
There's no judgment in the church dining room, where a different church each week puts on a hot meal for anyone in the community. This week, volunteers from the New Life Christian Church are serving up bean soup and grilled ham and cheese sandwiches.
Mary Swan, coordinator of the meal, said a lot of the people who come each week are homeless, mostly local but some transients. They come early, too.
"We don't start until 9 (a.m.)," Swan said, but she arrives at 8:30 and starts the coffee, "and they start coming in when I open the door… 9 o'clock seems kind of early for lunch, but it doesn't matter when you're hungry."
The weekly meals are one way that churches can reach out to potential new members, but Swan said there's not any proselytizing, or prying, going on.
Jeanette Gregory, who coordinates the meal schedule among the participating churches, puts it directly. "They're hungry, and we feed them, that's what we do. We don't ask questions."
Yet questions surround the homeless problem. How do people become homeless? Drugs and alcohol, mental illness, fleeing from abuse, and skyrocketing housing costs are common answers, but not the only ones. Isn't there a shelter they could go to? Not in the Valley. The closest shelters are in Bellevue. How do they live? Some work or receive Social Security or disability income, some steal, most use food banks and other social services. Where are they? Under bridges, near rivers, in abandoned buildings, and anywhere they can find shelter and some privacy. Why here in the Valley? There are as many answers to that question as there are homeless.
"No two situations are alike," said Officer Bob Keaton, with the Snoqualmie Police Department. Although Snoqualmie doesn't have much, if any, of a homeless population, Keaton said the department does see transients occasionally, and does what it can to help them. "Each one is handled on a case-by-case basis, but we always hook them up with the food bank, and we can issue Salvation Army funds."
Keaton guesses that North Bend's business community is one reason that city seems to have many more homeless than Snoqualmie. "Our city is primarily homes and houses, but North Bend is just the opposite… North Bend has more grocery stores, more gas stations, and businesses that could be places for a homeless person to warm up, or wash up."
He adds "The true homeless people that come through here… we've always managed to help them."
Each cities' police department works to help the homeless with referrals, but shelters are often full, and organizations like Hopelink have waiting lists for assistance programs.
"Hopelink is an awesome organization," Batiot said. "They make a positive impact, and offer life-changing opportunities to people who want to make a go of it."
Not everyone can overcome their circumstances, she knows, but Batiot would rather see the people who can, and get help before she gets involved. Police involvement can mean involuntary mental health evaluations or detox for some.
"We're the bottom net, law enforcement," she said.
Food bank volunteers Owen Rooney and Brian Busby are continuing their efforts to supply homeless people in the area with tents, tarps, and stoves to survive the winter months.
"We've handed out a lot of stuff, coats, gloves, hats, backpacks, tarps, and other winter clothes," said Busby last week.
He estimates they've helped about a dozen people now, and are looking out for more people in need.
"One of our concerns as Owen said, is to make sure we're reaching the people that really need it," Busby said. "If they're sleeping outside, they can't survive in this," he said, indicating the pouring rain outside.
The food bank is continuing to take donations of homeless supplies, including clothing, propane tanks, and single-burner camp stoves, that can be used for either heat or cooking.
To donate, or to get help, contact the food bank at mountsifoodbank.org, (425) 888-0096, or contact Rooney at email@example.com.
The Valley also 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.
• Sno-Valley Hopelink: Call (425) 333-4163, or stop by the office at 31957 E. Commercial St. Carnation. Closed on Fridays.
• Supplies: 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.
• Shelter: The Eastside Winter Shelters are open from 8:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. daily, through March 15. A shelter for women and families with children is located at the Bellevue Salvation Army, 911 164th Avenue NE, on bus routes 221 and 226, and a shelter for men alone is located at St. Peter’s United Methodist Church, 17222 N.E. 8th Street, Bellevue, on bus route 226.