Two years ago, homelessness wasn't an issue in the Valley. At least, not publicly.
"This time last year, nobody knew there were homeless in the woods," says Owen Rooney, an advocate for the homeless through River Outreach.
But this fall, about 50 people, mostly from local churches, started talking about how to help these people, through the winter and beyond.
Today, the communities of North Bend, Fall City and Snoqualmie, are weeks away from their first homeless shelter and, with a modest preliminary budget of $43,000, it may not cost the cities anything.
The Snoqualmie Valley Winter Shelter is a volunteer and church-driven concept that began Tuesday, Nov. 6, when North Bend Police Chief Mark Toner led a meeting of community leaders in a conversation about the homeless. It will be a mobile shelter, moving between host churches, offering meals provided by volunteer church groups, and staffed with trained, paid supervisors from the target opening date of Dec. 15, through the Feb. 28 planned closure.
It is also the beginning of a broader discussion on homelessness in the Valley, what residents can do to help, and, most importantly, what they want to do to help.
"I am not advocating a situation where… we make North Bend a capitol of the homeless. I don't want to do that, and I don't think any of you want to do that," said Toner at the initial meeting. "I want to take care of the people we've got right here, right now."
For now, that means an emergency winter shelter only, but Toner also encouraged people to think long-term, to the eventual possibility of a year-round shelter, with all of its challenges and the community concerns that go along with it.
Community concerns are what prompted that first meeting, Toner said. North Bend businesses and residents were complaining to city officials about the use and abuse of public spaces by some homeless people who, from simple loitering to keep warm, to creating health and safety hazards.
North Bend City Administrator Londi Lindell told the assembled group that the city did support social services, and said "It's very compelling to help people that are desperately in need and try really hard. The part that's difficult for us, because public safety is something we're responsible for, are those that have drug and alcohol problems…. I've got groups right now that volunteer to clean up Tollgate Park who won't go there any more to do ivy removal, because of the needles that are left there."
Drug use is a problem among the homeless, Toner admitted, and probably more so than among the total population. He noted that any shelter the community developed could set rules against using drugs while in the shelter, and against getting into the shelter while under the influence. The level of "barrier," or restrictions for entry to the shelter was one of many questions that the group would have to resolve, he added.
Other, more basic questions were just as difficult to answer, though. Who the homeless are, how many there are, and what they need are the questions that groups like Rooney's River Outreach and the Mount Si Food Bank have been working on for years.
"Krista (Holmberg, manager of the food bank) came to us, and we were hearing rumors that there was a homeless population on the river -- this was in the summertime about two years back," said Brian Busby who began River Outreach with Rooney, challenged by Holmberg and food bank director Heidi Dukich "to set up something specific for the homeless."
Busby and Rooney went to the rumored homeless camp to investigate and make contact, but found hardly anyone, Busby said. Since then, however, the homeless population has increased. They've made contacts with more homeless people over time, as they grew their ministry, providing supplies of tents, camp stoves, gift cards for food or batteries, vouchers for showers at the Si View Community Center, vouchers to do laundry, and warm clothes. They also saw more people when they volunteered at the food bank on Wednesdays, a number Dukich estimates at 40 to 50. Still, Jamey Ferrier, a new addition to River Outreach this year, said he was astonished when, at the Nov. 27 meeting, guest speaker Steve Roberts of Congregations for the Homeless estimated the homeless population at 200 to 300 people.
"I've heard numbers thrown around from a dozen to a couple dozen residents," Busby had said, but the larger number didn't surprise him, considering the entire valley, and the various definitions of homelessness, ranging from "couch surfers" to "car campers" to people in tents and under bridges.
"To me, if you're in your car, you're homeless," Busby said.
And if you're homeless, they want to help, but that can be difficult. Ferrier, a lifelong resident of North Bend, knows many of the resident homeless, and has built relationships with them. "I went to school with some of them, worked with some of them, I have lunch with them sometimes," he said. However, "They're kind of evolving, with the city and with the economy," and they don't always trust what help may be offered.
"A lot of people are defensive, they're in survival mode," said Toner.
Dukich pointed out that the food bank tries to connect people with services to help them, but adds "A lot of them are in a spot where they're just trying to get through today."
But helping a homeless person get through the day is the start of helping them get back on their feet, said Roberts, speaking of his experiences running two different homeless shelters in Bellevue. The winter shelter, he said, started with one goal, to save lives by offering people a warm place to stay at night.
"When you do that, things start really changing, because the stress of where you're going to eat, and where you're going to sleep goes away… Pretty soon they start thinking about other ways you can get out altogether."
Of the 250 people who visited the Bellevue shelter last winter, he said, 46 had already moved on to the next phase, qualifying for transitional housing, and some of them were already living on their own.
"It becomes an open door to getting out of homelessness," Roberts said.
For more information, to make donations or volunteer:
North Bend Sheriff's Substation - 425-888-4433
Snoqualmie Valley Winter Shelter - www.facebook.com/pages/Snoqualmie-Valley-Winter-Shelter-SVWS/558106217538255
River Outreach - firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 425-681-7380.
Mount Si Food Bank - http://mtsifoodbank.org, 425-888-0096.