ARLINGTON — Last winter, Amanda Adams used Sterno cans to keep warm in her car, which doubled as her shelter in north Snohomish County.
Sometimes, she said, she woke to someone trying to break in, or looking to see who was inside.
There hasn’t been an emergency cold weather shelter in Arlington or Marysville since 2019. Those seeking shelter when temperatures drop below freezing are typically directed to shelter at the New Hope Fellowship Church in Monroe or the Snohomish Evangelical Free Church.
“I have a client who is in his 70s with congestive heart failure. Do I want to see him freeze overnight on the street?” said Jenny Roodzant, social services coordinator at the Salvation Army of Marysville/Tulalip. “He can barely take five steps without stopping to breathe — how is someone like that going to get to a shelter in Monroe or Snohomish and back?”
With a severe cold snap forecasted next week, nonprofit leaders are scrambling to keep people alive. Temperatures could get into the single digits.
“This time of year — it’s just the concern of are we going to see people the following week or in the future?” said Sarah Higginbotham, director of North Snohomish County Outreach. “Because they may or may not live through the freezing weather.”
In the past, Snohomish County’s northern reaches have had only a smattering of cold weather shelters.
One of the first opened at Damascus Road Church in 2013. Before that, Marysville Police Chaplain Greg Kanehen told The Daily Herald multiple people without shelter died from exposure to the cold.
Since then, more local churches have collaborated to provide emergency shelter when the temperature dropped below 32 degrees. By 2016, Arlington United, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church and Smokey Point Community Church served as alternating Arlington shelter locations from November through the end of March. Volunteers served dinner and breakfast.
Jan Bauer of Arlington United Church said their church sometimes served as many as 30 people in a night. The church didn’t have the proper facilities to sustain the program, she said.
Churches in Marysville and Arlington pulled out of the program, each feeling the constraint of limited resources and space, until none were left.
The Salvation Army provided shelter in 2019, but only for that year.
“There just isn’t the room to do it,” Roodzant said.
And now, with COVID, the nonprofit could only host “maybe 10 people,” she said.
These days, people find warmth and cover where they can.
On a 38 degree Tuesday night in Smokey Point, families without stable shelter came to the Suds & Duds Laundromat in Smokey Point for a warm meal and clean clothes from North Snohomish County Outreach.
The organization’s Laundry Outreach program is part of a patchwork of resources in the area. They serve dozens of people in need of shelter each week.
People without stable shelter can also head to the Salvation Army six days a week for warm meals and three days a week for case management. The Volunteers of America Arlington Community Resource Center offers emergency shelter assistance — when funding allows.
Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring said the city also provides an embedded social worker team and city-owned Micro Extended Shelter Houses. He said the city would be open to partnering with any organization interested in providing a cold weather shelter.
But “it’s been difficult to get that ramped up really quick in the last couple of years,” Nehring said. “It’s been difficult to find a place to accommodate it with some of the restrictions … and it’s been difficult (for organizations) to commit just because it requires a lot of work and volunteers.”
Right now, he said, the best thing people can do to access shelter is work with the city’s embedded social worker team.
Finding local resources can be challenging, especially for those who aren’t digitally literate or aren’t already enrolled in a case management program, said Edward Hill, 68, who has been living in his recreational vehicle since the Great Recession.
Marysville resident Leona Holttum said prior to finding stable housing, she found herself going into open businesses to stay warm in the winter months. She said many cities aren’t prepared to support those who just need a warm place to sleep.
Causes of homelessness are nuanced, but some of those identified by Snohomish County Human Services include domestic violence, mental health and rental costs that outpace wages.
As for those on the street, “they’re not OK,” Holttum said. “It’s not easy for them.”
Marysville and Arlington don’t have congregate shelters for people coming off the streets. Instead, they’re referred to Everett, Higginbotham said.
Being told to go elsewhere isn’t helpful. People want to stay in the area they are most familiar with, where they are near the resources they rely on, Higginbotham said.
According to community data provided by 211 — a service connecting Washingtonians with resources such as rent assistance and health care — there have been over 5,000 housing and shelter requests over the past year in ZIP codes 98223, 98270, 98271 and 98292.
“Unfortunately we need shelter, but we don’t have it,” said Susan Gronemyer of North Snohomish County Outreach.
Many nonprofit leaders, like Roodzant, feel like a year-round transitional housing facility is the best solution.
Over the summer, North Snohomish County Outreach attempted to start a pilot Pallet shelter program, but Higginbotham said the plan was halted by “fear.”
The Tulalip Tribes recently broke ground on a similar project that will create 17 tiny homes for tribal members and their families.
Amid discussions of converting an Everett hotel into emergency shelter, city officials expressed frustration over the lack of efforts in other Snohomish County cities.
“Frankly, I’d be willing to bet money that five years down the line, despite your best efforts, we won’t have any of our partner jurisdictions in the county step up and do anything similar,” outgoing Councilmember Scott Bader said.
Keeping people sheltered and ultimately alive through the winter months begins with the concern and support of elected officials, Higginbotham said.
“Those concerned about sheltering people,” she said, “please let your city or county council person know that it’s important.”
Isabella Breda: 425-339-3192; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @BredaIsabella.