When Jennifer Kirk would play “career” with her sister as a young girl, she recalled always pretending to be a social worker.
So, in 2012, when the then-real estate broker noticed a concerning trend of more visible homelessness in North Bend following the wake of the 2008 Great Recession, she made a call to the local food bank, asking if there were resources available in the Valley for people experiencing homelessness.
“They said ‘funny you should ask,’” Kirk recalled. “‘There’s a public meeting tonight to talk about opening a shelter here.’”
Just 42 days later, Kirk and a group of residents, who had first met at North Bend Community Church, founded an emergency shelter that would eventually become the Snoqualmie Valley Shelter Services — the Valley’s first and still only emergency shelter serving residents experiencing homelessness.
“We had this dream of doing everything at once,” Kirk said. “If somebody would’ve told us ten years ago at those initial meetings where our agency would be now and the way we have grown, I would have had a hard time believing that.”
Today, ten years later, with Kirk serving as its executive director, the shelter’s services are more in demand than ever, as the post-pandemic era has seen housing costs soar and record levels of residents experiencing homelessness.
That’s why, on Sept. 15, the shelter is aiming to raise a record $135,000 at its annual Reclaiming Stability Luncheon. Those funds, Kirk said, will support the shelter’s much-needed programs and benefit the growing number of people in need.
“Caring for people year-round 24/7 is not inexpensive,” she said. “We remain the only emergency shelter in our entire sub-region and our services are deeply needed.”
Around the time the shelter formed, Kirk was not the only one noticing more homelessness. A group of about 50 community members, mostly from local churches, started talking about how they could support people over the upcoming winter.
That included Mark Toner, a now-retired law enforcement officer, who was formerly the North Bend Chief of Police. Toner organized the initial meeting of concerned residents, recognizing that neither nearby cities nor the sheriff’s office would be able to meet the need.
“It’s cold out here now,” Toner said at the 2012 meeting. “I want to take care of the people we’ve got right here in town, now.”
In the beginning, and for the first nearly eight years of its life, the shelter prioritized life-saving measures to get people out of the elements during the winter and operating inside community churches.
Beginning with a modest budget around $43,000, it operated as a year-round, daytime shelter, but only offered overnight service during winter months.
As the years wore on, the need for a shelter became more imperative. Currently, between its congregated shelter and motel and housing voucher program, the shelter provides beds to upwards of 60 residents a night with a staff of 15 people, including a full-time housing case manager and full-time navigator.
Heading into 2020, even prior to the pandemic, a count of the homeless population saw an increase in the number of Valley and King County residents experiencing homelessness.
With the need growing, the shelter made the transition to a 24/7 year-round model in November 2020, allowing the shelter to offer overnight beds and three meals a day to its residents on a year-round basis. By 2021, the shelter had moved into its semi-permanent home at the Renton-Pickering Post 79 American Legion Hall building downtown and saw its budget rise to $1.3 million.
Since the move to a year-round 24/7 overnight model, the shelter has served nearly 300 people, and seen a concerning increase in people arriving at the shelter who are experiencing homelessness for the first time, Kirk said.
According to data provided by Kirk, 32% of people who have been served by the shelter since its transition to a year-round model have been homeless for 90 days or less when they arrive. That’s compared to 36% of residents served by the shelter who are chronically homeless.
The shelter has seen much of that rise among families and baby boomers, Kirk said. Residents in their 70s have been calling the shelter more frequently, she said, with many experiencing similar traumas including being priced out of their homes, having a spouse die after depending on them financially, or being unable to afford their property taxes.
“With the rise in homelessness, we’ve seen a lot of people who have never accessed shelter service, and they’re terrified,” Kirk said.
“[We’re] trying to be that gentle voice on the other end trying to comfort them and acknowledge this is really heavy and this is hard and we’re here to help you move through the system as quickly as possible,” she said.
The Snoqualmie Valley Shelter Services Reclaiming Stability Luncheon will take place 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 15, at Meadowbrook Farm in North Bend. To buy tickets or make a donation, visit: bit.ly/3woTXeg.