Annual count searching for county's homeless
individuals has purpose in assessing and calling for true needs
Katie, a former worker at Take the Next Step and now homeless, answers the Point In Time questionnaire with volunteer Mike Glaser, of Snohomish, on Thursday morning in the Monroe
laundromat on Main Street.
MONROE — Two sleeping bags were tightly rolled near the riverbank.
They looked new, but the clay ground nearby had no footprints on it. Getting to that campsite took a trip past a no-trespassing sign and a hop over bright orange, plastic-mesh fencing that blocked a worn walkway over private property and to the riverbank. Two shopping carts were tipped sideways. The brambles and brush were littered with emptied cans.
Volunteers tromped through the field to the camp, boots sticking in cocoa-colored mud and making a slurping sound on the way to a bush-line. Beyond the brambles and brush was another walkway.
It was drizzly and 50 degrees for the Point in Time (PIT) count on Jan. 23, and a breeze created an occasional reminder of how damp and cold a day outside can be. The annual event produces a set of numbers, detailing homelessness in the county and in other areas across the state, and the nation.
Rocky Lancaster of Monroe is in his sixth or seventh year volunteering for the PIT. He is retired and said he has time to “pay it forward.” His volunteer experience and outdoor knowledge puts him in the more remote locations of Monroe, where encampments are reported.
A short walk away from Lewis Street bridge, hidden in the woods past another no-trespassing sign and more orange mesh were two sites with evidence of residents: a discarded floral patterned billfold, a garbage bag and plastic cartons. Ties on two-inch thick sticks pressed into the dirt looked like framework that once held cover from the rain.
“No footprints,” Lancaster noted. The river was high and “it might have flushed them out.”
Next, the crew is off to Al Borlin Park, known by officials as a hotbed for homeless encampments, which is why it made the list for a visit from PIT volunteers that day. The park has gravel trails lined with moss-covered trees. Along the trails are concrete pylons, and further down is an abandoned railroad track that serves as a roof, with space underneath. Fallen trees along the river could serve as sleeping space when the river is lower.
Lancaster carried a gift-bag with warm socks and snacks, used as a draw to start a conversation with people camping in area parks. His crew, dressed for the weather in rain gear and hefty boots, prepared to traverse two miles of ground along the Skykomish River and across Woods Creek, with multiple stops.
In the woods, they stopped to plan. Lancaster would approach first as the other four stand back. Living outside is dangerous, so emotions can run high.
“You don’t want to sneak up on them,” Lancaster said.
After checking on usual sites, no people were found in the outdoor site-visits.
The PIT count is used for funding decisions and to measure progress and change. It is held at the end of January to get a better count.
“People are more likely to be looking for shelter” and can be counted, said Mike Lorio, director of Take the Next Step’s (TTNS) cold weather shelter.
With no specific address, they are otherwise hard to find and help requires funding. Numbers are available once the full count is collected, and disqualified forms are scrapped. Information that can nix a form is sometimes related to duplicates or not enough information.
As Lorio trained the first group, he talked about how to make a quick connection and gain trust.
“Don’t make it seem like you’re doing something strange behind that clipboard,” Lorio said to volunteers, prior to the count. “We’re trying to respect them.”
Once identified as potentially homeless, people are asked for the first two initials of their names, last name, and date of birth or age. The identifying data is to avoid duplication in the count.
They are also asked where they last stayed and interview prompts help volunteers determine whether to check the boxes for substance abuse, developmental disability, veteran status and continuous length of homelessness.
Katie Sanfratella confirmed willingness to share her story, full name, and photograph publicly, in spite of the privacy concerns some may have around homelessness.
She is a member of the Monroe community, at the laundromat on PIT day. She is going through a divorce. She used to help the homeless community in her town as first a volunteer and then an employee of TTNS. She slept outside the night before. At midnight, the recorded temperature was 48 degrees. Cold weather shelters open at 32 degrees.
She has advocated for homeless people in the past, so she is aware of the stigma. She said she felt for the community before, but she is more empathetic now. People treat her differently now that she has no address.
“The looks. The disgust. I feel for these folks now,” she said.
Her home behind 7-Eleven was a draw and people knew her, and saw her as a friendly face. They would arrive to talk to her over the fence line, and knock on her door. Then a married mother of two, she would give them Gatorade and water.
“It’s really hard for me to say no,” she said.
Neighbors complained and after official warnings, her home was deemed a nuisance property and she was evicted. Her unsheltered status occurred during the divorce process, and her robust attentiveness to the homeless community contributed to it.
“I magnetize them, but, you know, they’re humans. The struggle for me is there’s nowhere for them to go,” Sanfratella said. “(My husband) didn’t have the same closeness to them. It wore on the marriage,” she said, but connections to people are important for “a little bit of normalcy in their (lives). It’s what causes the change — unconditional love.”
She did not fight her eviction, and is scheduled to stay at a shelter now. She’s counting her blessings. With her divorce still in-process, she still has access to Boeing health insurance to get care, and may be getting into a specialized mindful-training program in Utah. Her two elementary aged children are safely housed with her soon-to-be-ex husband.
As to the “why” around the visible uptick in the homeless population, in the past two decades, she points to the cost of living and mental illness, and describes addiction as a symptom of those two problems.
One woman in the parking lot of the laundromat saw it differently, saying that she was following the PIT and offering a banana to one of the PIT participants, so they could pass it on to a homeless person. She did not want to be named, but said that “most of these people are on heroin and meth” and need potassium. She did not say how she knew that. She said she gives out bananas, to help.
“I don’t think people are chasing the high,” Sanfratella said of some homeless people who have substance abuse issues. “It’s self medicating. … We don’t identify (mental health) as being a problem. People put a label on it, (but) we don’t have a mental health system.”
As she views her own path ahead, she sees the difficulty of a comeback. The level of job needed to support a household appears inaccessible. “It’s ridiculous. The cost of housing is so insane. It’s almost physically impossible,” she said.
Still, she said she feels blessed: “This too shall pass. There’s value in empathy.”
Sanfratella said the people she has advocated for then and now are “deep thinkers, amazing people.” She describes their bond and community as “phenomenal,” due to resourcefulness and ability to survive. Some can build a fort with few tools, or find ways to “bound together” without an official home.
“To be out here is very instinctive,” she said. Survival can include theft, she said, and litter is making them unwelcome. She said sometimes people with nowhere to live lose hope.
“Family has given up on them due to burnt bridges. It’s frustrating to me because no one is there to ask ‘what led to here’?”
The PIT count is a snapshot of what is happening with the county’s homeless population. Interviewers carry a checklist, to determine the demographic personality of homelessness in each community. They also try to get a hint at the “why” by asking what led to homelessness, but an expansion on that is not part of the data. Narrative information is common in some medical documentation, but the PIT count is more straightforward.
“There are express weaknesses to the PIT,” Lorio said in the training.
And aside from the “why” behind homelessness, the road back is hard to start once someone has no address, Sanfratella said.
“You’re not going to get a job if you can’t shower, can’t get enough rest,” she said.
Job applications also require a phone number and address.
Roger Evans recalls his road back, and the work involved in it. Sometimes he would shut down. He has PTSD from childhood trauma. He spent 30 years fighting addiction.
“The last one was meth. Crack. Heroin. I’ve done it all in the past 30 years,” he said. “The program I went through, it was free but you had to put in work.”
His road back was supported, and “every year has been better,” he said. He was able to trade household chores and odd jobs for a place to stay, and is living in the home of “a good Christian man. (He) didn’t even know me. Once I got my disability, I started paying rent.”
He also understands why people may decide not to stay in a shelter, or talk to PIT volunteers, or take help at all.
“It’s your manhood,” he said, citing Thessalonians 3:10, a Bible verse that says those who are unwilling to work do not eat. He said he never wanted a hand-out. Evans is now living a restored life. He volunteers at Take the Next Step to pay forward the understanding and support given to him.
He said that his $760 monthly disability checks do not cover standard rental costs, outside of the situation he is in. He is grateful he had the opportunity to work in exchange for rent, as a match for his values. For those without that option, he said, “we need more affordable housing.”
He explains his past life openly. He has split from family and friends who would trigger drug use. He agrees to use his full name, publicly — his new life is a joy he wants to share, to encourage others to do the same. He is in touch with his daughter again.
“She wouldn’t take my calls before,” he said of the time when he was using drugs. “I have a 4-year-old granddaughter” he said with a smile.
Coming out of addiction and homelessness was a path for him that required addictions-recovery, and the conviction to surround himself with people who supported that new life. He got help in West Virginia, where he returned to see his Mom. He worked off the cost of a recovery program, in a model that was free but allowed him to work on site, in exchange for treatment.
He said it may be even harder for women to come out of homelessness than men. The worthlessness from the choices made to survive that way become an obstacle. But he added, “once you start to address your problems, doors open.”
Take the Next Step has a link to resources all over the county and Monroe is connecting resource providers, and seeking solutions through its Homelessness Policy Advisory Committee. Evans lauds the Diversion Center in Snohomish County, where people can get immediate help to point their lives in a new direction.
Evans is preparing to get his GED. He said in spite of his disability, he can do something for work, and that is his plan. He takes his mentorship role to heart, and is ready to talk to people on why they should seek help.
“I don’t have to look over my shoulder anymore. I have true friends,” he said. “Not just people trying to use me.”
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