For most, snow and ice are an inconvenience involving missed work, rescheduled appointments or kids unexpectedly home from school. But for those who are homeless, a long stretch of below-freezing temperatures can mean the difference between life or death.
At night, at least, the South Snohomish County Emergency Cold Weather Shelter provides a warm sleeping mat out of the elements, plus dinner and breakfast, whenever temperatures dip below freezing.
However, when those in the shelter wake up in the morning, they are back out on the streets until the shelter opens again the next night, weather permitting. Many are left to find somewhere to spend the rest of their day and with the stigma surrounding people who are homeless, those places are becoming few and far between.
Anthony Pieper is one of them. The 33-year-old said he tries to get out during the day, but it is sometimes difficult to find somewhere to go.
“There’s not a lot of places we’re allowed to be or expected to be,” he said. “We can go to parks and stuff, but I hate moving my stuff all the time.”
Pieper, a U.S. Army veteran, currently lives in a tent erected in a vacant lot near 188th Street Southwest on Highway 99, but he said the tent doesn’t provide much shelter when the snow falls.
One of the many difficulties homeless people face each day is having to carry their possessions with them everywhere they go. This causes a problem for those who want to use the cold-weather shelter, but can’t bring everything they own with them due to space constraints. Often, they have to abandon those items or hide them and hope they are still there when they return.
This happened to Curt Aspel, a 53-year-old who said he lost everything after a night in the shelter.
“I had hidden my stuff with another gentleman and we tucked it away,” he recalled. “When we came back the next day, both of our stuff was gone,” he said. “Tents, sleeping bags, food, clothes.”
Aspel said he has been living on the streets since he lost his job with Fred Meyer in 2015. He said he was able to get more food and clothing through donations, but he is not sure if he wants to risk hiding his possessions again to stay warm.
Another reason some of those who are homeless prefer not to go to the cold-weather shelter is a lack of privacy.
“They’re all in a big room and you’re all kinda packed in there,” said Travis George, 29, who has been homeless for five years.
George, who has been using the shelter since before it moved this winter from the Edmonds Senior Center to Maple Park Church in Lynnwood, said he does not mind the crowds and stays at the shelter as often as he can.
“They feed you breakfast every day and they feed you dinner if you show up on time,” he said.
The region saw more snowfall for the month of February than it had in 50 years, driving more people to use the cold weather shelter. The sudden influx of people seeking a roof over their head has put a strain on the shelter’s resources, said Program Administrator Mark Waldin.
“We’ve almost doubled the number we normally have,” he said.
The cold-weather shelter has 40 spaces available for people who need somewhere to sleep on cold nights. Usually, the shelter doesn’t exceed its capacity, but with the stretch of cold weather the overnight population has increased to 53 as of Tuesday night, Waldin said.
The snow is causing problems for the shelter in two other areas — transportation and staffing. The snow has blocked in a van that is used to pick up people and drive them to them to the shelter. Some volunteers are also unable to make it to the shelter due to the weather. But the shelter must remain open for those in need, Waldin said.
“Snow or not, the issue is there and we’ll make do,” he said.
Due to the recent stretch of heavy snow and ice, Waldin said daytime options for those looking for a place to keep warm — like local libraries and Alderwood Mall — have been closed or operating on reduced hours.
He suggested that South Snohomish County cities could benefit from developing an emergency plan to address the needs of the homeless during severe weather, and perhaps consider opening up larger public spaces like the Lynnwood Convention Center during the daytime hours.
“It might be a rare occurrence or might only happen every three years, but there should be an emergency plan,” Waldin said.
When there are few daytime options for people seeking shelter from the cold, some are able to visit friends or family. Travis George said he and a friend have spent some time visiting George’s mother, who lives in Snohomish.
“We’ve spent the last couple days at my mom’s place,” he said. “But when the shelter opened we came back to town.”
However, staying with family or friends is just a temporary solution for many people who are homeless. Often, they begin to feel like a burden or do not want to overstay their welcome.
Aspel said he had been living with a friend for a few nights, but left when the friend’s girlfriend came over.
During the day, when the shelter is closed, Aspel said he tries to find other places to go where he feels welcome, like Alderwood Mall, the Home Depot and Wilcox Park. He said coffee shops are also popular, because they open early. Another place where many of the area’s homeless spend their time is the library.
“You can read a book, you can draw, you can charge your (electronic) items and other homeless people gather there too,” he said.
Some of the people who are homeless say they often spend the day looking for work. But there is not much work to find, especially during the colder months, said Jason Petrowitz, 32, who has been homeless for a year and a half.
“I try to go to LaborWorks at least a couple times a week,” he said. “There’s not always jobs though.”
LaborWorks is an industrial staffing company that provides people looking for work with temporary jobs in areas like construction, catering and agricultural work.
“This time of year it’s pretty much shut down,” George said. “Nobody is getting work.”
Petrowitz, who said he is estranged from his family, has been able to spend some days with George at his mother’s Snohomish house. But George said that due to the distance, he has been staying in Lynnwood in spite of the cold, because he is from here.
“This is home,” he said. “I grew up here, my entire life has been built around this city.”
As the cold weather drives people with nowhere else to go inside, Aspel said he is beginning to notice fewer places opening their doors to them. He said theft is a big reason many places are wary about having people who are homeless hanging around.
“There’s so much theft going on right now,” he said. “I think it’s not just the homeless, but we have the reputation.”
You can learn more about the Emergency Cold Weather Shelter at weallbelong.org.
— By Cody Sexton