ARLINGTON — Six years ago, Pastor Deena Jones of Arlington United Church was approached by a homeless person looking for help. It wasn’t the first time that someone in need had turned to the church for assistance during cold winter nights, but that didn’t make it any easier to turn him away.
“There just isn’t anything available to help homeless people in Arlington and, as a pastor, I got tired of people coming into the church looking for help, and having to tell them, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t help,’” said Jones. “Even on the really cold nights we would call the police and they’d say, ‘Oh, well they’re out of luck. Tell them to try going down to Everett.’ Our main goal was, and has always been, to keep people from dying. To keep people from freezing to death in the cold.”
Arlington Police Chief Nelson Beazley recently encouraged local businesses to purchase signs that would discourage people from giving money to panhandlers, suggesting rather that they donate to charities that offer services to the poor and homeless.
“Part of our local character is that we have these community-based organizations which are the perfect vehicle to support people in need,” said Beazley. “We can reduce the amount of panhandling in this city by putting that money to better use in support of groups that lend a hand to those who are less fortunate. Hands Together is yet another example of this community coming together for a worthwhile cause. It’s a testament to both the community and to those who live here.”
Hands Together, a nonprofit organization founded by Jones six years ago in response to the lack of services for homeless people in Arlington, is the kind of charity that helps to both feed homeless people and give them a place to stay on freezing cold nights.
“I called a meeting and just kind of put it out, mostly to area churches and the community, to talk about what we can do about homelessness in Arlington, and from that we started with a feeding program called the Brown Bag Brigade, where we brought sack lunches to the food bank every Friday,” said Jones. “We aren’t just helping homeless people, but also low income people as well. The following year we started a cold weather shelter. The shelter rotates through four different churches, and they open their facilities and allow people to come in. It’s supervised all night long with at least two people volunteering as supervisors.”
The four churches that have opened their doors to help those in need include Arlington United Church, Immaculate Conception, Our Savior’s Lutheran and Arlington Free Methodist.
“Our season goes from Nov. 1 through March 31,” said Jones. “We are open if the weather is forecast to be below 32 degrees for at least three hours, and sometimes the forecast isn’t right,= but we do our best to make sure we are open when people need us.”
Those who are needing a place to stay during freezing nights are encouraged to call the telephone line that announces if the shelter is open and which church is hosting that evening. The phone number is 360-403-4674.
Hands Together draws anywhere between one and 10 people per night during the winter.
“This will be our fifth season and we probably average between three or four people per night,” said Jones. “We usually have men, but sometimes there are women. We’ve only had one child, in our first or second year. We aren’t really seeing families, but I know they are out there. We just haven’t seen them in the shelter.”
Other churches in the area sometimes send volunteers to help supervise the shelter and, every once in a while, community members drop off coats or blankets for the shelter.
“Donations from the community help keep us going,” said Jones. “I’ve been in Arlington for 13 years and I know that we have homeless people living here. Last year, we were seeing a lot more young people coming through. You’d even see young people out on the corner with cardboard signs, asking for help.”
Part of Hands Together’s mission is to keep people fed, which is where the Brown Bag Brigade comes in.
“We’ve got at least a dozen volunteers who put together the brown bag lunches,” said Jones. “We buy the food from Costco, so that’s our biggest expense. Sometimes we get donations for that too. Recently we had someone bake a whole bunch of cookies, and sometimes people will donate apples from their trees.”
Volunteers at Hands Together just want to help save the lives of those in need, and keep them warm on dangerously cold evenings.
“I am not aware of anyone freezing to death in Arlington, but you do hear about it in other communities,” said Jones. “We just want to make sure that it doesn’t happen here.”
The organization is in need of volunteers, who must be over the age of 18 and pass a background check. To volunteer, call 360-435-3259. Donations can be sent to Hands Together, c/o Arlington United Church, PO Box 266, Arlington, WA 98223.
“Now our challenge is getting people to trust us enough to come into the shelter and recognize that it’s a safe place,” said Jones.