Temperatures are finally starting to dip below freezing at night in Ellensburg, and for many residents that means a severe drop in living conditions.
Friends In Service to Humanity(FISH) is a local non-profit organization dedicated to providing both short and long-term aid to people in the community experiencing homelessness. FISH has been working hard to relieve that danger for as many people as they can.
Starting on Nov. 18, FISH will provide a volunteer-run overnight cold weather shelter seven days a week for anyone who might need it. The shelter takes place at a different local church every day, so that each church hosts once a week.
Rebecca Kennedy, the newly-appointed coordinator for FISH’s long-running cold weather shelter program, is currently working on training volunteers and communicating with locations, ensuring that local people will have a place to sleep every night for the next three months.
According to Kennedy, the attendance at the shelters can be as few as four guests and as many as 25, depending on the night.
Attendees are given two meals if they stay overnight with dinner in the evening and breakfast in the morning. The selection varies day-to-day, but dinner is always hot and guests are welcome to take seconds. There is food available for dogs and cats, if needed.
“Some of the churches, and this doesn’t always happen, but if they wish, they’ll provide muffins, cookies, just as an extra treat,” Kennedy said.
Earlier this month, before the planned opening night, FISH had three days of emergency openings when the temperature dropped below 20 degrees at night.
The shelter itself is a fairly efficient operation, according to Kennedy. There are dozens of procedures and checks in place to ensure that guests at the shelter are taken care of and are comfortable, physically and emotionally.
“The third night [of the emergency openings] there were groups [of guests] sitting around talking, playing cards,” Kennedy said. “There were a couple people playing chess, some people watching videos, all kinds of stuff.”
Kennedy emphasized the importance of treating guests well and respecting them as human beings, but also emphasized that the shelters are meant to be a temporary solution, not a permanent one.
Last year, First Christian Church Pastor Don Green, whose building is one of the rotating locations for the events, spoke with the Daily Record about the cold weather shelters.
“We don’t give them beds and blankets and pillows, it’s not a comfy cozy thing. They’re lying on mats that are about an inch thick on the floor in a sleeping bag,” Green said. “We’re not trying to create dependency here. We’re trying to keep them safe and maybe nourish them a little bit so that they can function better in society. The sooner that they don’t have to be in the shelter, they can get their life back together again and find a place to stay, the better.”
Volunteers who are given training in first aid keep a watchful eye over the events in shifts through the night. Guests check bags at the door, and volunteers ensure that no weapons or drugs are brought into the shelter.
In the evenings, guests are given the opportunity to take smoke breaks or walk pets, but after a certain time they are required to stay inside through the night.
FISH’s work isn’t limited to just cold weather shelters, according to Kennedy. Throughout the year the group organizes events and programs like school supply drives in September and daily picnics in the summer, for families who normally rely on free or reduced-price school lunches the rest of the year.
According to Kennedy, the shelters are very well-supplied, but volunteers for overnight watch are always very much appreciated. The only prerequisite for volunteering is a brief training session, which often lasts less than an hour.
“People experiencing homelessness are so denigrated in society at large,” Kennedy said. “So we’re trying to do our little part.”