Homeless in North Bend: Cold, but better than Seattle

Rhonda Small, left, a patient at the Mount Si Transitional Health Center, meets boyfriend Thomas Mackenzie, a homeless resident in North Bend, at the downtown train depot. Both have been homeless for several years, and Mackenzie lives on the streets to stay close to small.  - Allison Espiritu/Snoqualmie Valley Record
Rhonda Small, left, a patient at the Mount Si Transitional Health Center, meets boyfriend Thomas Mackenzie, a homeless resident in North Bend, at the downtown train depot. Both have been homeless for several years, and Mackenzie lives on the streets to stay close to small.
— image credit: Allison Espiritu/Snoqualmie Valley Record

Thomas Mackenzie hates being cold. But life is often cold for Mackenzie, a 43 year old homeless man who has made North Bend his home for the past nine months.

On any given day, Mackenzie meets his girlfriend Rhonda Small, 55, at the train depot behind the Mount Si Transitional Health Center, where she has received liver treatments for the past year.

With no shelter options, and fearful of his belongings being stolen, Mackenszie can often be found hunkering down on the ground outside the depot.

"I stay as warm as I can by shivering," he said.

With a drenched sleeping bag and wet tarp, Mackenzie said, "It's darn near impossible to be homeless in North Bend. Being anywhere but Seattle is better."

"You go to Seattle without a partner, no one to watch your back, and you're taking your chances," he said. "Chances ain't good."

Mackenzie is among a number of homeless people in North Bend that are watched by North Bend Police Chief Mark Toner and helped by local organizations such as the Mount Si Helping Hand Food Bank, which feeds roughly 20 homeless a week.

"There are more people here than you are aware of," Toner said.

While North Bend's homeless community is a far cry from Seattle's skid row, it remains an issue of concern for residents and police. Homeless who remain semi-permanently in the community, living in parks and woods, are categorized by police as locals. Others are transients, people who don't have a local tie and come and go.

For Toner, transients are more difficult to deal with, due to their short stay and the local sheriff precinct's inability to build rapport with them.

With the more stable, local homeless community, police build relationships and forge an "abide by our rules and we won't bother you" attitude

"My personal policy is to be fair with them," Toner said. "They're not targeted by any means, but there is also zero tolerance on crime."

Sheriff's officers keep tabs on the homeless for their own safety and well-being, and also to protect the community.

Officers are friendly but firm, and aim to develop trust as well as authority.

"They are held to the same standard as anybody," Toner said.

The North Bend police department's biggest concerns with the homeless are alcohol abuse and loitering in public parks. Since they often have no incomes, homeless may commit crimes of opportunity, such as vehicle prowls.

North Bend has no vagrancy laws, and living on the street legally is possible. Some parks close at dusk, and homeless people are asked to leave when they close. People who are lingering outside of businesses can be asked to leave in the event of a complaint, but that doesn't mean they won't go elsewhere.

"They can walk up and down North Bend all week long if they wanted to," Toner said.

Why North Bend?

People without homes are drawn to North Bend because of its quiet atmosphere. For some homeless, living on the street here is safer than sleeping in a Seattle doorway.

Not a fan of the big city, Mackenzie said he will not go back to shelters in downtown Seattle.

"I've been there before," he said. "You're shoulder to shoulder with dudes, there's 20 of you in one room, and you've got to go through hell and high water to use the bathroom."

To Mackenzie, shelter life was like jail life. That was why he and Small chose North Bend.

Here, everyone — even the homeless — know everyone else. Most homeless residents "won't mess with you if you don't mess with them."

Heather Sonsteng, a case manager at Sound Mental Health, has recently began visiting North Bend to help local homeless residents get services.

"We try and help people to get hooked up with (state) benefits and try to refer them to shelters outside of the area," she said.

With no actual homeless shelter in North Bend, many homeless use services provided by the Mount Si Helping Hand Food Bank, located at the North Bend Community Church.

Of the 1,200 peoples that are fed in the soup kitchen and who collect items in the food bank every Wednesday, about five percent, about 20 people, are homeless.

Because the homeless do not have a kitchen, a special bin is set aside for "non-cook facilities".

While the average client is able to take about 45 pounds of food each week, the homeless typically don't have storage and pack as much as they can.

"A couple of my guys are homeless regulars," said Food Bank Director Greg Schatzlein. "They've got their bikes and backpacks, and they stuff it all in and go. You don't see them again until next week."

While some food banks ask for proof of residence before giving out food, the Helping Hand food bank does not.

"We have decided not to put ourselves in a position to decide whether people are needy or not," Schatzlein said. "If someone is homeless, that's who I want to help. We will take care of them."

Refuting the notion that the local food bank enables people to be homeless, Schatzlein said he's learned enough about the lives of homeless to show compassion.

"We tend to be afraid of things we don't know about," Schatzlein said. He urges people to learn more about the homeless, and then get involved to something positive for their plight.

There are hundred causes that help Valley residents. Schatzlein's positive effort: distributing food to the needy.

"It happens every Wednesday for me," he said. "You have people who, God bless then, could not get by without you. What more can you give than that?"

Life on the street

At 28, Mackenzie moved to the Northwest from his home in New Mexico when his uncle offered him work in Issaquah. The job did not pay off, leaving Mackenzie broke and camping out in the cold, starting his life as a man of the streets.

Mackenzie and Small met four years ago at a free meal event in Issaquah. Small was living in subsized housing after her previous boyfriend died of cancer.

"Thomas and I just clicked," she said.

After being evicted from her home due to payments, Mackenzie and Small lived homeless and "hopscotched around" Issaquah for three years before liver problems led her to seek health care in North Bend.

Commuting from Issaquah to North Bend, Mackenzie decided to find a place to camp out in the Valley. But he couldn't find places to stay.

"If you're not on obvious city property, you're on someone's private property," Mackenzie said.

Mackenzie admitted that there was a time when he was younger man and thought he could take on the world.

What are their dreams now? Small said that someday, they want a home of their own. Mackenzie would like to get away from it all.

"I want a place on the mountain," he said.

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