Op-Ed: When there's nowhere to go and no way to get there

Friday, January 13, 2023

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash.com
By Lisa Surowiec, 
Volunteer Coordinator
Shoreline Severe Weather Shelter

"Severe Weather Shelter" or "Emergency Shelter" kicks in when we have stretches of winter like we did this year. 

Multiple hours below 34 degrees, snow on the ground, those things that make us all want to hibernate.

I'm pretty good with snow - I grew up where there was snow, and I have a vehicle that easily gets me most places. But there was that one day that had the whole city throw in the towel. 

The night before, I didn't really expect the ice prediction to become reality and figured I'd have no issues, but there it was in the early hours. Thick ice on everything. 

I needed to get to the shelter to help close up the church, but I could not drive down off my hill. So I walked. And got intimately familiar with how very treacherous that much ice covering every single surface is, living where we live.

It took me an hour and a half to walk the two miles to the church, and by that time the place was mostly packed up. The shelter volunteers from the night before had done a good job of getting people roused and full of coffee, mats wiped and stacked, and they had found some salt and were salting the walkway and parking lot when I walked up.

The thing was, it was really difficult to ask people to leave. 

There simply were no good options that morning. That ice simply cut off... everything. Metro wasn't running. Libraries were closed. Walking was dangerous, and there wasn't any place open to walk TO.

Emergency shelter seems like such a gift, until it almost feels mean. We do our best to keep people warm, dry, and safe overnight, but then we have to close up and turn them out. And that's never easy, but really tough on mornings like that.

It's easy to make assumptions and judgements about unsheltered people - about their bad choices, addictions, lack of motivation, or supposed preference for living on the streets and getting free stuff. But here’s the thing – people’s stories are complicated, and each unhoused individual is someone’s son, daughter, sister or brother.

And drugs are not always indicative of addicts. One man I spoke with described how he views drugs as a tool. He matter-of-factly explained that if he needs to be vigilant on the street and stay awake for security, they let him. If he is hungry and cold, he can find solace. If he needs to eat, he can barter. He is a big guy with a great smile and stories about a former career in the trades, trying to find a way back to housing and work, surviving as he can in the meantime.

And it's not always drugs. We helped a woman who was experiencing some clear mental health issues, who just needed assistance. She wanted a shower. She wanted to wash her clothes. She wanted to lay down someplace for a while longer because she hadn’t gotten good sleep the night before. 

She didn’t have a phone, so she couldn’t call around to find shelter options or other resources. It was very hard for her to comprehend that the church building didn’t have any of those amenities, and the shelter doesn't operate every night. She needed so much more than we were able to offer.

Consider that icy morning from their perspective. The space that you slept in last night is closing its doors and telling you to leave. It is 8, maybe 8:30am. 

You have some bus tickets, but the buses are not running, potentially for another hour and a half. You have no money for a car service, and they're probably not driving anyway. The libraries are not going to open. 

The closest potential shelter does not have a published phone number, and as soon as the volunteers leave, you lose access to a phone anyway because you don't have one. The other shelters are downtown - which requires transportation. You can only watch as the volunteers walk away, and yell to the sky, "I can't TAKE this anymore!"

The woman we had to turn out into the cold was found huddled up on the cold concrete at the church doors the following morning, Christmas Eve, after finding no other solution that icy day. The church made her some hot mac and cheese, and we locked up a couple of bags of her things since she wasn't going to be able to carry all of her possessions while she searched for shelter.

These folks deserve better. They need to not be kicked out in the morning to try to figure it out. They shouldn't have to find out if the emergency shelter will be opening or not. 

North King County needs a true winter shelter, and we've got about 10 months to lobby for them to find the space and funding to make it so. Stable space from November through March - 24-hour shelter that doesn't kick people out into rain, snow, ice and with no destination. If we could also include lockable storage, laundry, and showers, that would be amazing.

The walk to the church that icy morning was physically difficult. Walking away from it and leaving folks with no options was emotionally so much worse.

Staffed by generous volunteers, the Shoreline Severe Weather Shelter, located at St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church, has been activated 16 times since November 1st. The number of guests has ranged from 1 to 12. The shelter will close March 31st. More volunteers are needed, particularly those presenting themselves as male. Contact staff@nuhsa.org or call 206-550-5626 if you can help!

Stay up to date on regional shelter information HERE and activation information for the Shoreline Severe Weather Shelter HERE

Email the King County Regional Homelessness Authority to support a robust and systemic response to shelter and homelessness in North King County (marc@kcrha.org or alexis.rinck@kcrha.org).


Sally Bagshaw,  January 15, 2023 at 10:30 AM  

Thank you, Lisa Surowiec, for this thoughtful first hand report on your experiences in the snow, and your heart for people who need a warm, safe, and dry place to be during this most recent snow/ice storm. I appreciate your dedication and agree we need 24/7 shelter with services all across our region. Another successful approach to address needs of people struggling with homelessness are our tiny home villages. Sound Foundations NW has completed homes ready to go. Here's Danny Westneat on the topic: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/the-story-of-seattles-homeless-shelters-that-are-without-a-home/

Sally Kinney,  January 16, 2023 at 1:33 AM  

It's way past time to have to depend upon volunteers to staff shelter that's only open in certain house, and only in certain weather. As Sally Bagshaw says and Danny Wesneat wrote in a recent column, we have tiny homes, electrified, insulated, safe and secure waiting for sites. Municipalities cannot build enough housing; for that we need funding that comes from the federal government and the state. But if we prioritize the way we should, we can build adequate shelter to get people off the streets, 24/7, all year.

Silje Sodal,  January 16, 2023 at 9:31 AM  

Previous comments are spot on. It is not sustainable to rely on volunteers for staffing shelters - emergency or otherwise. We must pay human service providers a living wage to do this incredibly challenging work - and we must have a regional and systemic approach for providing shelter and a connection to services and case management. All North King County cities have now signed agreements to help fund the King County Regional Homelessness Authority and now the work must be done to create this infrastructure of support.

Anonymous,  January 26, 2023 at 10:58 AM  

☮️🧡 Lisa S. You are an amazing human being! Alfred F.

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