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A season of shelter: Valley's winter refuge for the homeless wraps up first-year effort
It had to be a faith community that opened the Valley’s first winter shelter for the homeless. Only a church could organize quickly enough, generate donations and recruit volunteers to open its doors while it still mattered.
“It’s cold out now,” said North Bend Police Chief Mark Toner in November, at the first meeting of community members that would become the Snoqualmie Valley Winter Shelter. “I want to take care of the people we’ve got right here in town, now.”
Toner organized the Nov. 6 meeting at the North Bend Community Church specifically to ask community members how to do that. “The city can’t do it, the sheriff can’t do it…” he said.
The answer, according to King County Councilwoman Kathy Lambert, North Bend City Administrator Londi Lindell, Congregations for the Homeless Executive Director Steve Roberts and many others who attended those first meetings, was through churches.
“Churches work really well,” said Roberts, recruited as a shelter advisor for the North Bend effort by the group’s second meeting. Practically speaking, they have the open space needed for large groups of people to sleep, the kitchen for serving hot meals, and the bathrooms to accommodate larger groups of people of both genders. Their congregations have the spirit of service, and as religious institutions, they don’t have to meet all the requirements (extra insurance, fire sprinklers, etc.) that a shelter operated by a city or even another non-profit would have. “They’re just the perfect place to have a shelter,” Roberts finished. “Then we’ve got the big guy on our side, and who knows what can happen?”
The Snoqualmie Valley Winter Shelter officially opened in a church—North Bend Community Church, on Dec. 23, just six weeks after that first conversation. In that time, the group found mentors, staff, and a means of accepting tax-deductible donations through Congregations for the Homeless, hired and trained local staff and volunteers, built a volunteer-driven meal scheduling website that hasn’t had a blank day yet, and went door-to-door alerting neighbors and community members of the shelter’s creation and the public meetings to be held on the shelter. Church groups donated mats, school groups donated blankets and local laundromats donated machine time for washing the blankets (which another group of volunteers agreed to do every Wednesday) and vouchers for shelter guests to do their laundry. The Mount Si Community Center provided shower vouchers for guests, too.
“The outpouring of support from this community has been nothing short of miraculous,” said Steve Miller, a shelter supervisor, and elder in the North Bend Community Church, which hosted the shelter until Friday, Feb. 15, when it moved to Mount Si Lutheran Church.
What opposition the shelter did face has been entirely won over, it seems, through the group’s series of public meetings, Dec. 15 and 20. At these presentations, as well as at the Feb. 9 meeting before the shelter moved, neighbors were able to ask questions and raise their concerns about having the facility in the area. None of those who spoke against the shelter responded to requests for comment from the Record.
“Any time you have something new, there’s going to be some concern,” said Miller. A few people at the public meetings feared a negative impact to their community from the possibility of extra litter, homeless people loitering around the church, and the more severe problems of alcohol and drug abuse that many homeless people battle.
“Since the shelter has opened, we haven’t had any of those complaints,” Miller said.
Three blocks away, North Bend Elementary School staffers were surprised to hear about the shelter opening, but school principal Jim Frazier said “the initial concerns I think we had were just on the lack of notification… Instead of finding out it was coming, we found out it was here.”
With 560 students in his charge, Frazier needed specifics on when the shelter would open and close, and how it would operate. He brought his questions to the Dec. 20 meeting, where he met with Paula Matthysse, a shelter supervisor, and got his answers.
“She and I had a good talk,” Frazier said, “and to be honest, there was no impact here at our school.”
The shelter opens every night at 8:30 p.m. to check guests in, and closes down by 7:30 a.m. every morning. Guests are held to a code of conduct which requires obeying all shelter rules and staff, no loitering in the shelter area before opening or after closing, and no drug or alcohol use inside the shelter. They are also screened to ensure that no sex offenders are included.
School starts at 9 a.m. at North Bend Elementary, and ends around 3:30 p.m. most days, earlier on Fridays, “so that all worked out well,” Frazier said.
So far, things have also worked out well for the shelter, which averages more than a dozen people nightly, mostly men. Corps of volunteers have stepped up to host meals, serve as “blanket angels” for laundering the shelter’s blankets each week, and staffing the shelter overnight, and the guests are more than willing to do their share of the work — helping to set up the sleeping mats and clear them away in the morning, doing the dishes after meals and cleaning the kitchen, the bathrooms, and other areas used by the shelter.
“They are doing such a wonderful job of cleaning, our church has cut back on professional cleaning services,” Miller said.
The benefits, of course, go further than the church, just as many people expected they would.
Brian Busby, a member of River Outreach and the winter shelter group, has been working to help homeless people for over a year now, and he knows their stories.
“These people are in survival mode,” he said. “If you provide a meal for them and a warm place to stay, then they can start to focus on other things, without that stress.”
So far that idea has proved sound, as a handful of shelter guests have begun to find work, and others have taken initial steps to breaking free from their addictions.
Learn more about these people and how they got here in next week’s story.
• For more information about the shelter, or to donate, visit http://www.snovalleywintershelter.com.
• For more information about Congregations for the Homeless, visit http://cfhomeless.org/index.php.
Andre Starks, a shelter supervisor, sets up sleeping mats in the sanctuary of North Bend Community Church, for the shelter’s homeless guests, averaging about a dozen nightly.