Sophia Way looking to expand day shelter to weekends

Changes could be coming for one of the Eastside’s largest organizations helping the homeless.

The Sophia Way, a nonprofit which specializes in helping homeless women, is reaping the positive benefits of a separated shelter in the past year and is hoping to expand its services to weekends to better serve women experiencing homelessness.

The weekend hours for the women’s shelter are dependent on increased funding through Eastside cities, but Executive Director Angela Murray is confident the funding requests will be approved.

“We’re going to make it work,” she said. “We got this.”

The Sophia Way gets most of its funding from Eastside cities, with the largest amount by far coming from Bellevue. Other funding comes from private donors. It plans on opening its day shelter for weekends beginning Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017.

In 2016, Bellevue budgeted for $37,683 for The Sophia Way, which runs a day shelter for women and an emergency night shelter. In 2017, the requested funding shot up to $63,676, which would allow for the expanded hours. Kirkland is planning on bumping its commitment from $7,958 to more than $12,000 and Redmond could follow suit, jumping from $9,335 in 2016 to $15,919 next year. Issaquah and Sammamish have smaller chunks as well.

“Obviously homelessness doesn’t end on the weekend,” Murray said.

Karina O’Malley, one of the founders of The Sophia Way and a current board member, said limited hours for resources have a major impact on the lives of these residents.

“Women won’t go to church because they haven’t had a shower since Friday,” she said.

The day shelter and program shelter run by The Sophia Way is open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in north Bellevue. The winter shelter, located in Downtown, is already open from 8:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. all winter long, weekends included.

For the organization, this potential increase in funding comes at the right time. Not only is The Sophia Way trying to have weekend services (and in fact, is already hiring for those positions), but the number of clients it serves has increased as well.

According to Murray, the overnight shelter is already averaging around 20 women a night and around 40 members of families, and those numbers will only increase as winter arrives. One advantage the shelter has now is a change it made in January — separating families from single women.

O’Malley said that by separating the groups, everyone is getting a better night’s sleep. Families and women have 50 beds each at the shelter.

“Normally we might be scrambling for space. Our numbers are already higher than a year ago, but we can deal with them better,” she said. “It’s better for both sets of people, and everyone is benefiting.”

O’Malley said that some of the women coming to the overnight shelter, which is a low-barrier shelter, are dealing with active addictions or mental-health conditions which can make them scary to people who don’t know them. Families sometimes were wary of shelters like this, and could choose to stay on the streets or in a car rather than come to the shelter. On the other hand, the women (with an average client age in the 50s) are often exhausted from a long day of working, traveling and trying to stay safe.

“It’s exhausting pretending not to be homeless,” O’Malley said. “Some of these women, you wouldn’t know they were homeless unless they told you. They are exhausted, and then there’s the loud, frenetic energy of kids. Some will not come to the shelter so they can get some sleep.”

The Sophia Way has participated in winter shelters on the Eastside since those started in 2009, and ran split men and women shelters with Congregations for the Homeless until 2011 when the shelters separated. After that milestone, the numbers rose for both shelters.

A similar rise in the women and family numbers indicates that if people are more comfortable they will have a quiet, warm place to sleep, they are more likely to take advantage of the services of The Sophia Way, Congregations, or any number of faith-based organizations providing resources such as Catholic Community Services, O’Malley and Murray said.

O’Malley said that when The Sophia Way was founded in 2008, there was a belief that homeless women didn’t exist on the Eastside.

“We were sort of the bellwether of a new need,” she said.

Murray said that role as bellwether still exists, but without collaboration from other groups, The Sophia Way (and other organizations which attempt to make the homeless experience brief and as painless as possible) would have difficulty.

“I’m always impressed with the collaboration between groups with limited resources,” she said. “If it weren’t for the faith-based community, we’d be really hard-pressed.”