Snohomish County and its cities and towns are preparing to conduct their annual Point in Time homeless count Tuesday. You don’t have to look far to see signs of homelessness.
At the street level are the homeless themselves, some of whom at this time of year stay in emergency cold weather shelters run by local churches. While some guests are “career” homeless who choose to live the lifestyle for personal reasons, most are people who have fallen on tough times and would rather be anyplace else, or who suffer from mental illnesses or substance abuse.
At the policy level, local governments statewide have made homelessness, affordable housing, drug abuse and poorly funded mental health key priorities in Olympia, seeking more resources and strategies.
With that in mind, I spent a night in Marysville’s’ cold weather shelter. I was under no illusion that the experience would feel as real to me as it does to them because I had a warm home to return to in the morning. But for one brittle, 20-degree winter night, I got a snapshot of the admirable volunteers it takes to run a shelter, and the people who appreciate the services they get, even if they don’t always express it outright.
7:45 p.m. – I arrived at the cold weather shelter at Damascas Road Church at 1050 State Ave., across from City Hall. Eric Patton, a member of Allen Creek Community Church, one of seven Marysville churches that helps keep the shelter staffed, signed me in. The shelter opens when weather is anticipated to be 32 degrees or below for four hours or more.
Patton explained some of the rules. “No alcohol or illegal drugs are allowed, no weapons, no verbal or physical abuse, no theft or destruction of shelter property, and when the doors lock promptly at 10 p.m., you need to be inside if you’re staying.” He added that coed sleeping arrangements are not allowed. Men and women are in separate wings, so some decide not to stay if they can’t be together. Pets are not allowed, though service and therapy dogs are OK.
Patton helped me grab a green sleeping mat, a bed sheet and blankets. Ten other mats were already set up in the main sleeping area, so I set up near the main entrance. Not such a bright idea, as I would later learn.
8 p.m. – I met shelter director Zoe Wlazlak as I was getting a tour. With different shades of wood from floor to half walls, the inside has a welcoming ski lodge, coffee house vibe. Wlazlak said as of Jan. 10, the shelter had been open 22 nights since Thanksgiving, with 288 beds occupied, 180 dinners served, and more than 800 volunteer hours contributed. She said coordinators try to have three volunteers for four-hour shifts from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
8:20 p.m. – An energetic volunteer, Sherron, brought me a dinner plate that included a bowl of chili, spinach salad and a cup of apple wedges, with cookies for dessert. I sat in a communal area of couches and chairs to eat, catching a discussion between a volunteer and guest about the volunteer’s relationship with Jesus, while the guest said he simply believed in a higher, supreme being. The people around me didn’t interact much; one maintained a steady, vacant stare, never saying a word.
8:35 p.m. – I asked Patton’s wife, Shawn, who serves as the shelter volunteer coordinator for ACCC, about all the people coming and going. She said: “Some just drop by for dinner. Others leave before the doors close at 10 p.m. Many of the people who don’t stay have tents pitched at other locations, and you can’t leave your belongings unguarded for too long or they will be taken.”
Shawn said she became involved with the shelter from the start four years ago.
“The catalyst was a homeless man we knew that Allen Creek Church, Marysville Free Methodist and others were trying to help after he got kicked out of his house. Sadly, he was found dead in a storm drain with hypothermia.
“That was the last straw,” Patton said. “The churches were not going to see our friends die that way anymore.”
Damascas Road Church stepped in and agreed to serve as the shelter location.
Shawn said it can be difficult filling volunteer spots. Her own reasons for giving back to others haven’t changed.
“I just like helping people in need,” she said. “I like that I am able to keep somebody alive for another night. It’s such a small sacrifice.”
9 p.m. – I met Leona, who goes by her nickname, “The Street Kid.” She is someone you have probably seen around town because she walks a lot. You wouldn’t know by looking, but she knows many of Marysville’s homeless, and she is an encyclopedia of knowledge about homelessness. She even carries a Rolodex worth of business cards in a baggie from businesses and people who serve the less fortunate.
She came to Marysville after her father died in south Seattle, and she has remained here since. Since being welcomed into ACCC she likes to make frequent visits to the shelter and talk to the regulars.
“The guests really cherish what’s being done for them,” Leona said, but added there are other needs critical to help the homeless.
“The two biggest problems are transportation, and no place to get cleaned up,” she said. “The Marysville YMCA sometimes is available on Sunday to get cleaned up, so that is very appreciated.”
She wishes there was some way to have one permanent day center in Marysville. “If we had a place where we can play board games, spend time with friends, and have access to resources, it would make a huge difference.”
9:25 p.m. – Brian, an admitted drug user, talked about trying to kick a heroin habit. He said he had been staying at a friend’s house, but the guy’s wife said he had overspent his time sleeping on the couch, so he had to move on. It hit him especially hard over the holidays. He had no family in the area to fall back on, and no car to get around. He was also battling pain from a back injury he sustained while working as a roofer last year.
As closing time approached, more guests stepped outside for one last cigarette.
10 p.m. – “Go find your beds, please.” The Pattons worked to get everybody ready when it’s time to go dark and to make sure everyone who planned to stay overnight was inside the building. “We don’t want you to be walking around after 10 p.m. making noise,” Shawn said.
Lights went out with a familiar sign off.
“Good night, Jim Bob.”
“Good night, John Boy.”
“Good night, Mary Ellen.”
“Good night, ladies.”
“Why would the other guys leave?” another guest said. “It’s cold out there. I have never understood those people.”
“This is probably the best night’s sleep I’ll get, forever, and I don’t need to say anything about the Everett Gospel Mission,” his voice trailing off.
3:30 a.m. – Papa’s little therapy dog, Marley, barked for his only time overnight. The shelter was otherwise pin-drop quiet.
5:45 a.m. – The lights came on. I was already up, talking to a volunteer who would close out the day. The shelter slowly filled with sounds of life. Coffee, tea, hot chocolate, pastries, hot water for oatmeal.
Sitting across from me while we had coffee, another guest was layered up to face the day. He wore a thick woolen Dallas Cowboys knit cap. This was still while the Seahawks were alive in the playoffs. “So, you’re a Cowboys fan.”
“Nope. I’m a Steelers fan.”
After clearing that up, we spent the next five minutes being armchair analysts.
7 a.m. – The shelter closed. The bed pads, sheets and blankets were packed up to launder. The guests stepped out into another cold but sunny day.