Monroe Cold Weather Shelter keeps doors open in 2018

Community, organizations stepped up when financial challenges surfaced last year

Kelly Sullivan

This year marked the first season since it opened half a decade ago Monroe’s Cold Weather Shelter was not at risk of being shut down halfway through winter.

Director Michael Lorio said crucial financial support was gifted from around the region last year, when media outlets covered the organization’s precarious position. Beds were made available for nearly two dozen nights last winter before the issues with funding became obvious, according to Take the Next Step’s community outreach coordinator Sarah Lunstrum — that was almost as much as the entire 2015-16 season.

Doors to New Hope Fellowship on West Main Street were open for more than twice as many nights last year, and this year for nearly three dozen, Lorio said. The season typically goes from mid-November through mid-March.

“That’s still quite a few,” he said, “although, last year was the record.”

The situation is often dire when the shelter opens. One guest told volunteers they had to walk all night to stay alive when the thermometer hit freezing.

Job loss is one of the biggest life events that cause homelessness, but often more is going on in a person’s life that contributes to displacement. Snohomish County Human Services has also identified a lack of housing and mental health and substance abuse treatment as major barriers in the region.

Lorio said Take the Next Step officially took over managing the shelter at the start of this year. He sleeps in the church with the clients and volunteers virtually every night it’s open.

A Snohomish County grant that supports emergency shelters also helped keep doors unlocked this year, Lorio said. About 44 people signed into the facility. Most clients who came in this year were living unsheltered nearby.

Previously, more people would travel from further away. Lorio said many are able to attend shelters in communities they are closer to now. Those who still do come to the New Hope Fellowship use their own vehicles or hop on an accessible bus route, he said.

Monroe Police and Fire District 7 help communicate to clients through word-of-mouth on days the shelter will be open. Sometimes they also offer rides, Lorio said. Dates are also advertised on social media and the City of Monroe’s website.

Lorio said organizers have an uncommon relationship with the city. Public Works director Brad Feilberg checks three separate weather forecasts each morning to determine whether beds will be made available. He was part of the community coalition that founded the shelter in 2012, which included two dozen organizations. He has remained a strong partner through the years. The city also willingly maintains an information hotline, Lorio said.

When thermostats are predicted to hit 32 degrees on any one of the three forecasts, the shelter will be set up, Lorio said. The temperature was chosen so services are consistently available. Maintaining operations is a challenge, even during a financially stable season, he said.

It always takes many hands to support operations. The cost of running the shelter is about $180 per night, or $6,000 annually. That covers a paid site manager and utilities.

About one in every four people who come seeking safety on the coldest nights are seniors, “the most vulnerable of vulnerable,” Lorio said. Some are families, and rarely young children visit. That truth is humbling, and one of the reasons he and volunteers choose to give their time, he said.

“We want people to be safe when they are most at risk,” he said.

Lorio said this year just less than two dozen active community members helped staff all three four-hour nightly shifts — that’s 400 hours. They help set up food, cots, wake up guests and break down the sleeping area in the morning. The church offers the space at an incredibly low cost, he said.

“Without the support of community members and organizations through donations and grants, we would not be able to stay open,” wrote former shelter director Kim Gee in a recent letter requesting monetary support. “We use any and every donation to keep our doors open and offer a safe warm place for our community’s homeless and those in need.”

The Monroe Cold Weather Alliance schedules volunteers and trainings. Volunteers are required to complete two sessions through the Snohomish County Medical Reserve Corps, which is how the shelter is insured.

Doors are unlocked from 8-10 p.m., and visitors can stay until 8 a.m. on nights temperatures are expected to fall below freezing. If anyone leaves after 10 p.m., they are not allowed to re-enter.

Take the Next Step will take donations for the shelter.

Lorio said his goals for the future are to continue to develop the identity of the shelter and expand services, as funds and resources allow. That may include raising the minimum temperature one day. He said if their baseline was changed to 34 degrees this season, doors would have been opened for almost twice as many nights.


Courtesy photo: The Monroe Cold Weather Shelter inside the New Hope Fellowship church has provided shelter for more than 40 people so far this winter.


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