Winter’s weighed heavy on local cold weather shelters

ARLINGTON – For emergency cold weather shelters, this winter will go down as a season that broke records for overnight stays in Arlington and closed the shelter doors in Marysville while churches scrambled to provide temporary locations.

Volunteers with the Arlington shelter, which rotates among five churches, had their good work cut out for them, said Deena Jones, lead pastor at Arlington United Church.

The number of nights open so far since November, 41, is a record-breaker, nearly double what was reported last year over the same period – and there are still six weeks that could bring freezing overnight temperatures.

The Arlington emergency cold weather shelter helps homeless individuals and families find a safe, indoor temporary overnight shelter, along with a hot meal and a warm place to lay their head.

From its humble beginnings in 2008 as a feeding program that distributed brown bag lunches through the food bank, which continues every Friday, the shelter has established itself as a valuable community asset, supporters said.

Since 2009, November through March, the shelter has welcomed 179 homeless individuals and provided 786 beds to 590 men, 187 women and nine children.

The shelter averages eight guests a night. At its peak, the shelter served 18 clients over two nights at the end of December.

“That’s almost to the point where it’s too many to handle,” Jones said.

Volunteer hours this winter totaled 4,633 hours.

Unlike the shelter in Marysville that existed at a fixed location until recently, Arlington operates its shelter among Arlington United Church, Immaculate Conception Church, Smokey Point Community Church and Jake’s House Church, which recently agreed to take over Tuesday nights.

Jones pointed out that the Mormon church has provided even more support this season, and that has helped. Additional support comes from community members, service clubs and businesses, ranging from kettles of soup and dinner supplies to gift cards from retailers.

Jones recounted how the shelter idea came about. It could have come from above, but a little nudge helped it along.

“In my church, I was just praying and asking to find a need we could help fill, when I bumped into a homeless person,” Jones said. “I felt that this is what we were being called to do.”

When a group got together at the Lutheran Church in fall 2008 to discuss ways to get a cold-weather shelter going, she was surprised by the turnout of about 30 people.

While researching how to establish cold weather shelters, the group looked at Edmonds and Lynnwood’s operations as models and lessons learned. From there, they received shelter training from Snohomish County Red Cross, then shared that training with volunteers.

“We’ve been pretty good with the number of volunteers involved, especially this year,” Jones said.

The makeup of guests who stay at the Arlington shelter has changed over the years.The regulars when it originally opened were mostly older men in their 50s that were longtime homeless, and some women, she said. Mental illness and substance abuse were common.

Over the past couple years, Jones said, guests have increasingly included some younger people with drug problems, homeless individuals who lost their job or can’t find affordable housing, and more families.

Jones said she and the volunteers are sympathetic to the misfortune that brought them to the shelter, and they meet them with compassion.

“It’s good to get to know the people and know their stories,” Jones said. “It’s not an issue of homelessness. They’re people, just like you and me. Running a shelter is a lot of work, and can be frustrating at times, but it’s worthwhile.”

A light supper and breakfast are usually served. To find out if a shelter is open and where it will be, call 360-403-4674. To volunteer, call 360-435-3259.

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