Norman Christensen lost his roadside home a few months ago when his car broke down.
So the 54-year-old man sold his car/home for scrap and took to the homeless circuit, moving from shelter to shelter on the Eastside.
For the last month, Christensen has been spending most of his nights at a temporary overnight shelter at the Old Redmond Schoolhouse Community Center in downtown Redmond. The shelter opened Jan. 15 and is set to close Sunday morning.
Christensen, who would sometimes spend 10 to 12 consecutive hours walking just to stay warm, said the shelter is a lifesaver for homeless people.
“It takes everything you can do to survive,” he said. “Your energy is all survival.”
Christensen is one of about 50 homeless people who have found warmth at the shelter, which has caused some concern, but mostly caring from the Redmond community.
For the previous three years, the temporary Eastside Winter Shelter was located at the Crossroads Community Center in Bellevue and has provided a place for people to get off the streets and escape cold winter nights.
As Christensen bluntly puts it, “it’s either that or sleeping under a tree.”
The shelter then moved to its Redmond location on Jan. 15. Colleen Kelly, the City of Redmond’s human services manager, said the shelter moved to the Schoolhouse because having the shelter open on a continuous basis at a city building is challenging and the timing for Bellevue was not ideal.
“(Redmond was) in a position to offer the community center for the space,” Kelly said. The Schoolhouse location was donated, rent free, by the city. The average cost per night is around $600.
The shelter was originally scheduled to shut down on Feb. 15. However, they received enough additional funding to keep the shelter open for four more nights, according to Kelly. The final night will be Saturday and the shelter will close Sunday morning.
This winter’s shelter was funded by four Eastside cities — Redmond ($5,000), Bellevue (13,500), Kirkland ($5,000) and Issaquah ($5,000) — along with King County and a number of Eastside faith organizations as well as several private individuals. The money covered the shelter’s expenses when it was in Bellevue as well as Redmond.
Additional funding coupled with predicted cold temperatures, made the decision easy to keep the shelter open for a few more days, Kelly said.
“It looks like the temperature is going to take a dip,” Kelly said.
Unfortunately, she added, the foul weather is predicted to extend beyond this weekend. If the city receives more funding, they plan on opening another shelter in November, Kelly said.
To learn more about donating to the shelter, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
A COMMUNITY NEED
Despite its temporary status and budget limitations, Christensen is grateful for the shelter, its organizers and the supportive community.
Christensen used to work in the tech industry, both locally and in Tennessee before becoming unemployed. He returned to the Northwest but had trouble finding a job. One thing led to another and Christensen, whose income at one point was around $70,000, found himself with nowhere to live.
He works the occasional day-labor job, but said being homeless makes it difficult to find steady work because it’s difficult to make yourself presentable for a job interview without access to something as simple as a shower.
While the Redmond shelter is a great place to stay warm and sleep, guests do not have access to a shower or programs to help them get back on their feet. Christensen said because of the limited resources available, it’s easy for a homeless person to get stuck in a rut.
David Johns Bowling, director of Congregations for the Homeless men’s shelter in Bellevue, runs the Eastside Winter Shelter with Helen Leuzzi, executive director of The Sophia Way women’s shelter in Bellevue. Congregations provide programs as well as case workers to help people take their lives back, but Johns Bowling said the money for the winter shelter is just enough to pay for minimal staff, a few administrative expenses, snacks and cleaning supplies.
Kelly said the community was well informed about the shelter coming to Redmond and many people “expressed support for the city providing this service,” and asked what kind of assistance was needed.
In addition to a warm place to spend the night, shelter guests have been able to enjoy a hot meal as well, thanks to donations from local families, businesses and organizations. Blankets for the night and sack lunches for the next day have also been donated.
Redmond Elementary School, which is located next door to the community center, has also been very supportive and involved with the shelter.
Lake Washington School District (LWSD) officials requested for more of a police presence in the area during the morning when school began. The shelter closes at 7:30 a.m., well before students arrive at school, so there were no incidents involving any of the shelter guests and school children, according to Jim Bove, community outreach facilitator for the Redmond Police Department.
“Thankfully, there are so many eyes on children as they arrive and leave school, so there really haven’t been any issues specific to the schools,” Bove said. “Pretty much all the issues we have had were usually within the shelter and the people staying there.”
In fact, Redmond Elementary students and parents were open and supportive of the shelter, according to school counselor Leslie Fields.
“(The shelter) was approached to us as a community outreach,” Fields said. “We were very comfortable.”
And to do their part, students started a sock drive and decorated brown lunch sacks for the shelter. The sock drive began when the shelter first came to Redmond and Fields said the amount they collected was incredible. She has stopped by the shelter about once a week to drop off socks — usually two boxes — and students are still bringing in more. Fields was especially impressed because students were so enthusiastic about the drive.
“It was such an easy thing,” Fields said. “All we did was suggest (the sock drive) and the kids went off with it. It brought the community close together.”
The donations were very appreciated by the shelter guests, who made a collage from cardboard and cut-up paper plates to thank students for their donations. Hand-written messages on the collage ranged from a simple “thanks” to inspirational quotes.
While the community support has helped the shelter be successful, Johns Bowling said the guests have also had a hand in it.
An average of roughly 50 individuals — about 40 men and six to 12 women — have been coming every night. For that many people to be squeezed in a small space, Johns Bowling said there has been relatively little trouble. Guests, about 85 percent of which are regulars, help take care of the space by cleaning up after themselves because they need the shelter and don’t want it jeopardized or shut down, he added.
This being said, there have been incidents where the police have been called to the shelter, including an incident earlier this month when a 50-year-old man pulled out a knife on another man outside the shelter.
Bove said that incident was the worst one police had to deal with at the shelter. As of Tuesday, there have been four assaults at the shelter, two thefts and two disturbances where people were asked to leave, Bove said.
“None of the situations involved non-shelter residents,” Bove said. “Outside the shelter itself, we received concerns from citizens about increased panhandling in town and loitering in downtown areas.”
There was another incident where police had to arrest a man for criminal trespassing who was asked to leave the Redmond Town Center and then later returned, Bove said.
Christensen, who has been a regular shelter guest since it opened in Redmond, provided a written statement for the police about the knife incident.
“It was kind of scary,” he said.
However, he said overall, things have definitely improved. Initially, while people were figuring things out and working out the kinks, he said there would be tension among guests but Johns Bowling and the rest of the staff have smoothed things out.
Despite the occasional incidents and his overall situation, Christensen has a very positive outlook on life. He said, very matter-of-factly, that life has its ups and downs and he just happens to be down, adding that this experience has really given him a new perspective and insight on the homeless community.
Before he became homeless, he gave money to people on the streets, but said it was mostly to make himself feel better. He has come to learn that the way to really help is to give people the opportunity to help themselves. And that usually means work.
“People need jobs,” Christensen said.
Bove said the city and police have also learned a lot during the shelter’s time in Redmond. The future of the shelter is unknown, but the need is definitely there, Bove said.
“If it does return we have learned to better communicate with all departments, what kind of issues might arise, and how to make strides in improving everyone’s safety while also providing a needed resource,” Bove said.