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For people who use North Bend’s homeless shelter, it’s a rare haven
Problems brought this group of people together, the guests of the Snoqualmie Valley Winter Shelter. Unemployment, mental or physical illness, disability and addiction all contributed to one or more of the 30-plus guests’ showing up in the North Bend Community Church’s dining room on this blustery February night.
Debbie, a mom with a teen and adult daughters and a volunteer at the Mount Si Food Bank, lost her job when she needed reconstructive surgery to repair the damage to her jaw from a mis-fit pair of dentures.
Art, 58 and often seen riding his bicycle around town, works for several area people, taking care of their property and their animals. He doesn’t earn enough to afford a place for himself and Dutch, a friend so close he says they’ve become brothers, even with Dutch’s military retirement benefits. He’s hoping that when he can start earning Social Security, they’ll have enough money for both food and rent, without having to choose like they do now.
Max is in his early 20s, and, like Art, wasn’t sure about coming to the shelter at first. Fellow homeless people told him about it and encouraged him to come, but he preferred solitude while he wrote—he said his actions and his writing have been guided by a series of “nifty dreams prophesying it,” which led him to North Bend last fall. What made him come that first night was losing his tent, in the area blocked off by Search and Rescue volunteers in February when a skydiver went missing.
Tiffany, maybe 20, came to North Bend three years ago to be with family, and when her great-grandmother died, she was left alone. She and her boyfriend Jesse, found out about the shelter from North Bend deputies and from some of their friends. They come to eat each night, but they don’t often sleep there, unless it’s really cold outside.
“He’s my security right now, because I don’t have any more family here,” Tiffany explains. At the shelter, men and women sleep in separate rooms—so far, there have been no families with children in need—and Tiffany can’t sleep without him. “I don’t feel safe without him.”
Jesse and Tiffany are like a lot of guests at the shelter. They come to eat what nearly all of them consider “amazing food every night,” Jesse says, but they leave before the doors close at 10:30 p.m., to find a place to sleep for the night.
From its opening night, Dec. 23, through Feb. 4, the shelter served between 20 and 40 meals each night, and hosted an average of a dozen people, for 561 meals and 348 bed nights.
Kevin, another military veteran, has been staying at the shelter every night, and says it takes a lot of stress off his mind, just knowing it’s there.
“It’s not as cold,” he says, “and they don’t have showers, but they do have bathrooms.” Another plus for him is “They have staff staying up all night so there’s no trouble.
Preventing trouble is the job of the supervisors, Linda Beckvold and Andre Starks, the paid staff members—always at least one man and one woman—who stay overnight, coordinating the meals, cleanup and packaging up leftovers to send out with shelter guests in the morning after breakfast.
“I’ve started drinking coffee again,” says Beckvold, to help her stay awake through the night. She is experienced with shelter work from her job at House of Hope, and initially began volunteering at the North Bend shelter, just to help.
A half-hour before the shelter opens, Beckvold is busy prepping the kitchen, which is soon overrun by tonight’s dinner, enchiladas in all varieties, plus salads and fixings, prepared and carted in by engaged couple Heidi Houser and Mark Lowe, owners of Stanton Plumbing.
Houser is busy explaining to Beckvold which meats and sauces are in which pans while Lowe starts arranging pans and plates.
“This is going to be a good one tonight… they’re going to be happy tonight if they eat” Lowe says, adding, with a pause after each word, “Heidi can cook it!”
Houser loves to cook, and said she was thrilled to find out about the shelter’s need for dinner volunteers, because it may be her niche. “I just had a dinner party with a bunch of my friends,” she said, and one of them encouraged her to find a niche in cooking. Then she found out about the shelter’s need for volunteer cooks, and signed up immediately.
“We just think it was such a great thing, and for such a group in need,” she said.
Beckvold says every single dinner volunteer has been enthusiastic about the task, which at first glance may seem daunting: Cooking dinner and breakfast for 40 people in entirely portable and disposable containers.
“You’d be amazed,” Beckvold says “They’re just so happy to be giving.”
That spirit is also what appealed to Starks, Beckvold’s frequent shelter partner. He was a Seattle resident, well acquainted with the problems of homelessness and the joy of serving others, until moving to North Bend in December with his new wife Valerie, a 20-year North Bend resident. Both volunteered at the shelter before Andre was offered a staff position.
“We just got in it to support the community,” said Starks. “It blows me away to see this community, seeing the love you’ve got here.”
Tiffany’s boyfriend, Jesse, was extremely skeptical that the shelter would ever come together, or last, so he is also pleasantly surprised.
“I’m blown away. I thought they were going to shut it down,” he says, frankly. “People don’t want us here,” he said, something he thought was made clear with North Bend’s new anti-camping ordinance. “They basically don’t want us to exist.”
Other shelter guests have shared his view, including Art, who, in early December, wasn’t even sure he would use a shelter, if it opened. For starters, he and Dutch had things pretty well figured out in their particular neighborhood.
“I consider myself the godfather,” Art said, only half-joking. At his and Dutch’s camp, he laid down the rules for others who wanted to stay there, including no littering, and no cursing. He’s friendly to the people he meets, and they’re friendly back, he says. He keeps order, and because of that, “a lot of them are happy that we’re out there.”
On this night, though, Art is happy to be inside, where it’s warm. Usually, he admits, he stays warm by drinking, but he knows that really won’t help him.
“When you have a home to go to, you have no concept of what it’s like for people who don’t have a choice,” he says.
The shelter is well on its way to giving local homeless a choice, however. In February, shelter supervisor Steve Miller reported to the North Bed City Council that three shelter guests had recently celebrated getting jobs, and one man was slated to leave the shelter and move into transitional housing. A few others had decided to seek help for their addictions, too. Using drugs, including alcohol, in the shelter is strictly prohibited, and so is the sale of drugs, alcohol and weapons on shelter premises. Since the shelter opened, three people received season-long bans for violating the shelter’s code of conduct, and a few others got shorter-term bans.
Like the food bank, the shelter also helps to connect its clients with services that might help them, such as, in the veteran Kevin’s case, bringing in a King County Veterans’ Services representative to help him with his benefits. “Sometimes he helps,” says Kevin.
It’s a start, at least, which is all many people really need.
Paula Matthysse, a shelter director and media contact for the group, explains it simply. “It’s a place to eat, a place to stay… we’ve got guys that go to work, and it’s helpful to get a good night’s sleep.”
Matthysse and the rest of the shelter advisory board, however, have big dreams for the future of the shelter. The group has obtained enough money to operate the shelter through March 30, and easily transitioned the shelter to its new location, Mount Si Lutheran Church on Feb. 15. King County Councilwoman Kathy Lambert, who attended planning meetings for the shelter in November, has offered to donate a retired Metro van to the shelter to help solve transportation problems. However, it’s unlikely the van will be available until the fall of this year.
Most of the operating budget for the shelter this year came from private donations, Matthysse said, but she hopes that a larger community will get involved in planning next year’s shelter season.
“It’s going to take some brave conversations, and brave conversations from elected officials,” she said, but is not in the least discouraged. “I still have faith in the Snoqualmie Valley.”
Faith is where it begins and ends for the Snoqualmie Valley Winter Shelter, and not just because churches can move more quickly to meet the needs of the homeless than a government agency can.
Lambert, at the conclusion of one planning meeting, may have summed it up best. “I love the idea of the churches doing this, because to me, that’s the only way we’re going to get people whole again.”
Winter Shelter supervisor Linda Beckvold talks with volunteers Heidi Houser and Mark Lowe as they ready a dinner meal.