On a recent Friday night, a group of some 10 people experiencing homelessness huddled outside Immanuel Lutheran Church, waiting for someone to open the doors. It was drizzling, with temperatures dipping into the 30s.
Among those waiting was Tonya Johnson, a longtime Vancouver resident. For 22 years, Johnson was a special education teacher. She attended Battle Ground High School and Clark College. She worked for Vancouver Public Schools and spent some time living in Southern Oregon.
Years ago, a series of tragic events — abduction and abuse among them — traumatized Johnson. Her safety net dissolved beneath her, and she landed on the streets. Her life became a desperate attempt to find housing each night. She’s tried to access services with some success, but nothing sticks. Since August, she’s been living outside and in shelters when they’re available.
Which is what brought her to Immanuel that Friday night.
Between November and March, three local churches — Immanuel Lutheran Church, Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church and River City Church — will rotate as temporary housing for families, couples and singles. Together, they are known as the Satellite Overflow Shelters.
They are operated by staff from the outreach organizations Outsiders Inn and Share, which work in conjunction with the Winter Hospitality Overflow, which are shelters run out of St. Andrew Lutheran Church and St. Paul Lutheran Church.
Combined, the WHO and SOS provide 73 beds and meals seven nights a week. Meals are provided by multiple community organizations and volunteers each night.
Access to the shelters is available through the Council for the Homeless Housing Hotline at 360-695-9677. Operators connect callers with the WHO or SOS for the night, space permitting. They can also answer questions, such as whether pets are allowed, or if special needs can be accommodated.
The Housing Hotline is open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends.
Friday night at the SOS
At 5:30 p.m., the doors to Immanuel were opened, and those waiting were allowed inside. Staff took everyone’s temperature and ensured all were wearing masks before checking them into the shelter.
Ren Autrey, deputy director of Outsiders Inn, stood inside, cordially welcoming everyone.
All the staff and volunteers running the shelter have experienced homelessness at some point themselves, Autrey said. Building trust and connection is a priority for staff, she explained, because many coming into the shelter are going through a traumatic experience.
“For some people, this is their first day experiencing homelessness in Vancouver,” she said. “We want to help them through this experience, we want to treat them with compassion and a little bit of grace. And we understand, because we’ve been there ourselves.”
According to Autrey, the SOS grew out of a collaboration between multiple community organizations and faith groups. Some churches used to operate shelters during severe weather, but no single church could accommodate a shelter seven nights a week.
Organizers realized that by rotating through different churches, a shelter could be operational seven nights a week through the winter.
It might not be an ideal situation, Autrey said, but it’s something.
She quoted a line of scripture: “If not you, who? If not now, when?”
As people were checked in, they made their way into the back room, where individual beds were set up, divided by white curtains. In the middle of the room was a large, communal table, where people were sitting down with bowls of warm vegetable stew, plates with rolls and cookies and cups with coffee and milk.
Staff joined residents around the table, and discussion turned toward housing, the cold weather and the relief of shelter and warm food.
Autrey said that staff are encouraged to join residents for dinner as a part of fostering connections and relationships. It helps residents feel safe, and it helps staff get to know residents better. The more staff learn about a resident, the better they can connect them with the resources they need, she said.
“Peer engagement is a huge part of what we do,” said shelter team member Kylee Harvard. “It helps us gauge where people are at in life and what they need, because everyone’s at a different place. Some people have nothing, while other have already made a few connections.”
Many of the residents who use the shelters return night after night. In the future, SOS organizers are hoping to secure a permanent shelter. They’re also working on establishing a mobile program where staff will go out and meet people experiencing homelessness where they are to connect more of them with resources.
“Right now, we’re just thinking outside of the box, how to extra utilize the space that isn’t being used at certain times without trying to take away from the church as it normally operates,” said Shelter Operations Manager Adam Kravitz. “Just that we’ve been able to get this done, that’s a blessing.”
After finishing their meals, guests began to talk among themselves. A few had small dogs with them. One man sat down at a piano and plucked some keys.
One resident, Alicia Vasconcelles, sat listening with her 9-year-old Yorkshire terrier named Bandit on her lap. It was her first night staying in a shelter.
“There are so many people out there without homes, it’s so sad,” she said. “It’s a relief to be here, out of the cold.”