Publisher’s note: My Edmonds News contributed this story as part of a series that its online news partner, The Seattle Times, is running on homelessnesss.
It was an image that stayed with Edmonds City Councilmember D.J. Wilson: A homeless mother and her small children sleeping in a car in Edmonds, trying to stay warm as temperatures dipped below freezing.
Wilson, himself the father of two small children, had heard the stories from church leaders about homeless families in Edmonds looking for shelter during the cold-weather months.
Under the umbrella of the South Snohomish County Emergency Cold Weather Shelter Network, Edmonds and Lynnwood churches had been offering temporary shelter to homeless families when the weather turned dangerously cold. But Wilson learned that their good intentions were being derailed by the City of Edmonds’ interpretation of the state building code, which required that all churches offering temporary shelter have a sprinkler system in place. Those rules were a deal breaker in Edmonds, where the majority of church buildings are several decades old and congregations are unable to afford the estimated $30,000-$50,000 necessary to install such systems.
Establishing a network of churches to provide temporary shelter from the cold was the brainchild of Pastor Eileen Hanson of Lynnwood-based Trinity Lutheran Church, which was already operating a “Neighbors in Need” ministry on Saturday mornings. The ministry served as “a Band Aid for weekends when social services agencies are closed,” Hanson said, providing those in need with bus tickets, food from local food banks and grocery vouchers.
Two years ago, Trinity Lutheran church volunteers began seeing people coming in with blue hands. “They would sit over the heating ducts and it would take them 10-15 minutes to warm up,” Hanson said. “We said, ‘We have to do something about this.'” Church members spent nine months researching what it would take to start an emergency shelter that would be available whenever temperatures dipped to 33 degrees or below for a four-hour period overnight.
The South Snohomish County Emergency Cold Weather Shelter Network was launched in 2008 with seven Edmonds and Lynnwood congregations participating on a rotating basis. In addition to offering sleeping facilities, the designated churches provided a hot meal in the evening, breakfast in the morning, and a bag lunch that homeless people could take with them. The first year, the need was great: “It was an awful winter with snow and ice,” Hanson recalled. “We ran for 34 days and provided 474 beds, much more than we expected. There were youth as young as 10, two pregnant women and senior citizen, and all of them were local people from Edmonds/Lynnwood.”
But Edmonds fire officials became concerned about the potential fire hazards posed by homeless people sleeping in buildings with no sprinklers, and in March 2009 published minimum safety guidelines the churches had to follow. The three participating Edmonds churches — Edmonds Unitarian, Maplewood Presbyterian and the Jeremiah Center operated by the Lutheran Church — did not meet the fire code. As a result, the homeless in Edmonds had to seek shelter at Lynnwood churches instead, or risk exposure to the elements.
Through a mutual acquaintance, Hanson reached out to Wilson, who was determined to find a solution. He brought in fellow Edmonds Councilmember Strom Peterson and City Attorney Scott Snyder, and the three of them worked with Hanson to develop an approach that would address the concerns of fire officials. “Firefighters will say, if you let these churches have homeless shelters, you have the risk of losing lives, and churches will say you will lose lives if you don’t,” Wilson said. “And fire departments typically win.”
Nearly two dozen church leaders and volunteers appeared at the Dec. 15, 2009 City Council meeting to request that the city relax its strict interpretation of the building code. Wilson introduced a resolution that applauded the work of community organizations who work to end homelessness and also directed city planners to review existing regulations and “incorporate the greatest amount of flexibility” possible to find a solution. “This is only vote we will take that will save lives,” Wilson said.
The council passed the resolution by unanimous vote, and a month later — on Jan. 20, 2010 — were presented with a compromise that had the blessing of fire officials and church leaders: An ordinance that excluded Edmonds churches from conforming to the sprinkler system requirement, as long as they have an operating smoke detector system and provide two volunteers who will stay awake each night to monitor for fires or violations of no smoking prohibitions. Before a roomful of church supporters, the council voted unanimously to approve the measure, opening the door for the Edmonds-based Jeremiah Center to offer emergency shelter beginning in the winter of 2010.
“We are grateful to the City of Edmonds for its leadership on this issue,” Hanson said.