ARLINGTON — The 79-year-old woman wore her best.
She walked into an Arlington church and asked the pastor about a cold-weather shelter that had opened the night before.
She had no place to stay.
“She looked like she was dressed for church. My jaw almost hit the floor,” said Pastor Deena Jones at Arlington United Methodist Church. “Everyone has stereotypes about who is homeless, but that doesn’t tell the whole picture.”
The woman was the shelter’s first guest.
Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert honored a group called Hands Together last month. Volunteers from four churches opened the city’s only cold-weather shelter in 2009. More than 70 people stayed at the shelter last year.
Hands Together started around the time of the recession in 2008. The group’s first project was the “brown bag brigade.” Every Friday, volunteers put together about 50 sack lunches and take them to people who are waiting in line at the Arlington Community Food Bank.
It wasn’t until the next year that Jones decided to host a cold-weather shelter.
“I was in my office one day and praying, ‘Lord, what is the need that our church could help with?’ I looked outside and there was a homeless person,” Jones said. “Within a couple hours, I saw several more homeless people. I thought, ‘OK, Lord, you’re knocking me upside the head.’ ”
Jones wanted a place she could take people if they needed to get out of the cold.
Anyone is welcome to stay at the shelter between November and March when temperatures drop to freezing or below. Volunteers serve guests dinner and breakfast the following morning.
Hands Together used donations from the local Rotary Club to purchase a trailer. The churches take turns hosting the shelter, so the trailer helps shuttle mattresses and blankets around town.
Arlington United Methodist Church, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Smokey Point Community Church and Jake’s House are currently on the rotation.
Jones hopes to open a permanent location one day.
Last year, Hands Together served between six and eight people each night. During the previous year, the shelter hosted about three people a night. Jones said more people are staying at the shelter because they have built friendships with volunteers.
These volunteers, all 100 of them, are congregation members and people who live in the community.
”Some have experienced homelessness themselves in the past and understand and want to give back now that they’re in a better place,” Jones said.
Before the 2014 Oso mudslide, the churches in Arlington didn’t often cross paths, Jones said. Now, volunteers from different beliefs work together regularly.
“I’m glad to say there’s still some good camaraderie where we can put aside those things we might disagree on and serve a common purpose of helping people in the community,” Jones said.
Caitlin Tompkins: 425-339-3192; firstname.lastname@example.org.