As the Eastside passes through another week of frigid temperatures, Vincent Flint counts down the days left until the Bellevue Severe Weather Shelter packs up and moves to Redmond.
For four Eastside cities, including Bellevue, the move is the chance to provide a shelter for homeless all winter. It’s about saving lives. It’s humane.
For Flint, it’s a disaster.
Battling Hepatitis C since April, Flint says the mile walk from his camp to the shelter at the Crossroads Community Center is almost impossible; a $5 bus ride to Redmond and back too costly.
“I’m not walking a tight rope,” he said. “I’m walking a razor blade.”
Promises of an especially icy winter this year drove an interfaith community to urge the cities to keep a shelter open on the Eastside all winter.
Although their success was not expected, the group turned the Bellevue shelter, which typically only opens when temperatures drop below 32 degrees, into a nightly operation.
However, the change requires the shelter to move to Redmond and the group is still raising money to cover the cost of being open extra days. Their goal is to have enough money to stay open through Feb. 15.
While cities hope the investment will save lives, many still feel it’s not enough.
It’s an improvement to only being open when it’s freezing, but winter doesn’t end in February, said David Johns Bowling of Congregations for the Homeless, which contracts with Bellevue to run the shelter. “When the money runs out, it’s still going to be cold.”
The ultimate goal is to find a permanent location and a nonprofit willing to take on the project, said Emily Leslie, Bellevue Human Services manager.
The shelter first opened three winters ago, after a homeless man died from exposure on Christmas night. The police chief came forward to urge the city to open a place during severe weather.
“We did consider it a regional shelter, and we encouraged the other cities to join in support,” Leslie said.
Redmond and Kirkland gave “a little” money, and Issaquah sent the largest number of homeless of any community besides Bellevue.
After temperatures began to drop this November, Redmond began hosting meetings about expanding Bellevue’s pilot program.
Bellevue was willing to participate, if the group could find a new location. The shelter was already costing the community center about $25,000 in revenue loss, in addition to operational costs.
The group only had a few weeks to find the new location. Volunteers searched the Eastside, coming up empty handed in Kirkland and Issaquah.
Issaquah has emergency shelter capacity, most commonly used when Issaquah Creek floods. City buildings have also been used during a cold snap or power outage to keep people warm, but it’s not meant to be routinely used as a shelter, said Mayor Ava Frisinger.
“The city said that they wouldn’t offer any of their public space to us, but they would try to help us, if we could find private space,” said Elizabeth Maupin, Issaquah/Sammamish Interfaith Coalition coordinator.
After hearing that 11 percent of the clients at the Bellevue shelter are from Issaquah, Frisinger was moved to give $5,000 of city money.
“It seems thoroughly appropriate,” she said.
The group plans to approach all of the cities for money, the second crucial piece to keeping the shelter open.
Redmond came forward with an additional $5,000 and Bellevue promised $13,500. A few interfaith groups also held fundraisers.
The group hasn’t yet approached Kirkland.
A finish carpenter, Flint owned his own business in Bellevue for 36 years. He’s a local, graduating from Interlake High School in 1972.
“I had a good career, I made lots of money,” he said. “I should be someplace warm.”
Four years ago his body was too torn up to work and the housing market began to halt, he lost his job and he was on the streets.
For the first few years he slept in his car in front of the Crossroads Top Foods. Then he began camping.
Flint uses his YMCA membership to keep clean, does laundry at a friend’s home and doesn’t do drugs or drink.
Jobless, he decided to teach himself a new trade, 3D design. He stays warm at the Crossroads Bellevue Shopping Center during the day and, with laptop in hand, doesn’t stand out as anything other than someone taking advantage of free Wi-Fi.
Unlike Seattle, homeless on the Eastside work harder to fit in with a less accepting crowd, Bowling said, although no one at the shelter was quite as clean as Flint.
While drugs, alcohol and weapons are banned from the shelter, about 30-40 percent of the clients come in high or drunk, Bowling said. “They don’t want to give up their addictions.”
The shelter doesn’t check IDs or run background checks. There are no case managers and everyone is welcome.
“This shelter is here to save lives,” Bowling said.
In the gym, garbage bags marked with duct tape keep blankets for regulars, who trickle in until about midnight.
Clients pull down tan plastic mats from atop a pile, until the supply runs out. The shelter is equipped for about 50 people.
On a typical cold night, the outside parking lot is covered in frost, men gather with cigarettes and other vices, puffing out warm air and smoke.
Inside one sleep area, about 10 snoring men overwhelm any nighttime silence, the air is thick.
Flint is too ill to sleep with the group, and finds a corner in the hall.
Although the shelter offers a separate room for women, only a few ever show up.
“People are more compassionate on women in general,” Bowling said, explaining their absence.
Women also have something sexual to offer up, he added somberly.
Volunteers in the 2010 One Night Count found 141 homeless camping out or on the streets on the Eastside, not including those on buses, couch surfing or in shelters.
Other than Tent City 4, there are only two other known shelters on the Eastside. Sophia’s Way has space to house fewer than 10 women. The Congregations for the Homeless shelter in Bellevue houses 30 men, but has a waiting list of about 25 more, Bowling said.
Unlike the severe weather shelter, these shelters offer a hot meal and case managers working to get people out of homelessness.
Bellevue’s shelter fulfills a more basic need.
“It’s about being humane,” said Colleen Kelly, human services manager for the city of Redmond.
Although it’s a critical service, it’s not sufficient, she said. “This is a very bare-bones intervention.”
If the men don’t find a warm place to stay, they typically ride the buses or walk all night to keep warm.
“This is a life saver,” Bowling said. “I’m quite honestly shocked someone hasn’t died this winter.”
Even if the cities pull together and get a permanent shelter open all winter long, there is still a transportation problem.
Buses aren’t cheap to those who have nothing, and a recent gubernatorial budget promises deep cuts into government handouts and food stamps.
Elizabeth Maupin, who also volunteers at the shelter, offered to drive people from the Issaquah Food Bank to the new Redmond shelter once a week, and is organizing volunteers.
Police officers also offered to give rides, if they have the time.
For Maupin, the goal isn’t just a winter shelter on the Eastside, it’s having one in each city.
“People are more likely to have a good support system if they stay close to the community they know,” she said.
Not everyone is as optimistic about her vision.
Given the cost, that’s not likely going to happen anytime soon, Kelly said.
While the cities offer a lot of services to the homeless, Bowling suspects lack of political will is likely why there are so few shelters on the Eastside.
“Seattle is a destination for the homeless, and Bellevue doesn’t want to become one,” he said.