Hands Together homeless shelter reluctantly shuts doors

ARLINGTON – The Hands Together shelter is shutting its doors this year for the first time in a decade, leaving the homeless to face cold nights on the streets in Arlington this winter if someone doesn’t step in.

The shelter in recent years rotated between Arlington United, Immaculate Conception Catholic, Smokey Point Community and Jake’s House churches with mattresses and shelter items transported by truck from one site to another.

Pastor Deena Jones with Arlington United Church said the group of churches including hers, who provided shelter and a meal for the homeless when the mercury fell 32 degrees or lower for a few hours, would no longer be able to operate.

The shelter provided a safe, warm bed, dinner, breakfast and usually, a sack lunch to go. Volunteers worked 4 hour shifts through the night.

“It is frustrating, especially when those really cold nights get here and we’re just not going to feel good in our own warm beds knowing that there are people in danger,” Jones said. “The city is doing all these wonderful things to get people into treatment.”

There are a couple of reasons the churches are taking a step back.

“The churches weren’t willing to continue primarily due to concerns over drug use and drug paraphernalia being brought into the shelter,” Jones said.

Her own church was stuck with a $300 plumbing bill after used needles were found in a toilet. Moreover, adequately cleaning the carpeted floors especially on a Saturday night when services followed the next morning was a challenge, she said.

The bigger problem was lack of space as the numbers of homeless grew.

Ten years ago, the shelter opened for 25 nights with 52 beds offered, 13 different people served and an average of 2 per night, requiring 788 volunteer hours.

In 2018-19, the shelter stayed open for 55 nights to offer beds to 985 individuals, 142 different people served and an average of 18 per night, with volunteer hours totaling 1,749. After weird weather turned cold last February and stayed that way well into March, their 24 mattresses weren’t enough for the 30 visitors a night, and the American Red Cross had to step in to give them more.

“We just outgrew our program, and it got to be more than we could handle,” said Jones, adding that Arlington United’s space isn’t big enough for 30 people, and that was a problem for the other churches as well.

“Sheltering the homeless is a problem that takes all of society to solve,” she said.

Jones emphasized that the volunteers from all the churches “are still willing to help out if we can find a single location.”

For the past few months, Hands Together shelter participants have been in discussions with the city and North Snohomish County Outreach to identify a potential location.

It’s no easy task. With a fixed location, there are many more regulations, and there are liability issues.

Sarah Higgenbotham said her nonprofit Outreach organization is considering taking the program over, but no final decisions have been made.

The organization is perhaps best known for the weekly laundry outreach it offers at Smokey Point Suds n’ Duds and at the Laundry Station for free to those in need. The meet-ups built relationships with the homeless who stopped by and shared their stories while doing a load of clothing.

Mayor Barb Tolbert said she is hopeful the groups can come up with a solution.

“We are grateful for the compassion and kindness shown by the members and volunteers of Hands Together,” she said. “Thousands of hours were spent by volunteers to ensure no one has to be unsheltered when temperatures drop below freezing; each one is a true blessing to our community.”

In the meantime, those needing shelter are being encouraged to look to other nearby communities including Marysville for emergency shelter.

Homeless individuals in the Arlington and Smokey Point areas are being redirected to the Marysville Salvation Army Shelter at 1108 State Ave. Ironically, Marysville faced the same loss of shelter operations last year until the Salvation Army, Marysville Area Ministerial Association and city pulled together in time to open the doors this year.

For additional help, the Snohomish Health District provides an interactive map of shelters at https://www.snohd.org/471/Cold-Weather-Shelters.

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