The temporary homeless shelter tucked inside a Bellevue church has almost everything the men who stay there need: a hot, and often homemade...

Share story

The temporary homeless shelter tucked inside a Bellevue church has almost everything the men who stay there need: a hot, and often homemade, dinner, a breakfast buffet and a brown-bag lunch. Clean bathrooms and showers. A secure spot to store their belongings, and a large, warm room where they spread their mattresses each night.

The program, which is not affiliated with Tent City 4 and has been using Eastside churches for 11 years, offers a once-a-week nurse consultation, haircuts and occasional job counseling.

What’s missing is a long-term, comprehensive plan to help the residents of the roving church shelter break the cycle of homelessness: things such as addiction counseling, mental-health services, financial advice and help finding permanent housing. While other programs offer these services to Eastside families and homeless women, homeless single men have fallen through the cracks, experts say.

That’s about to change.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Congregations for the Homeless, which runs the shelter, and Hopelink — the Eastside’s major social-service agency — have teamed up to create a Life Coach program. Hopelink will train a coach who will then recruit community volunteers. Together, they will help shelter residents locate the services they need and learn skills that could put them on the road to self-sufficiency.

“It’s a difference we can make instead of just housing people,” said Steve Roberts, who heads the shelter program, which was inspired by the Eastside Interfaith Social Concerns Council and has two dozen congregations giving financial and volunteer support. The shelter moves every 30 days, rotating among 12 churches, 10 of them in Bellevue.

Among the 30 men who stay there for two or more months at a time, the balance is usually the same, Roberts said: About 20 percent end up there by a fluke; they had good jobs and good training, are full of determination and will get back on their feet on their own, soon. Another 20 percent include those who are mentally ill or have serious addictions and probably won’t make it out of the homeless cycle, no matter how much help is offered.

“The 60 percent in between is who we think we can help; they’re prime candidates to get out,” Roberts said.

The coaching concept, also often referred to as “wraparound services,” is not new, said Jeff Natter, director of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, which is working on a 10-year plan to curb homelessness.

But providing these services often is difficult because of money constraints and other barriers, he said.

“This Life Coach program is a great idea,” he said. “It’s necessary for people to move out of the cycle of homelessness, yet it’s a challenging thing to fund from a government perspective. So it’s wonderful that faith communities are taking this on.”

On any night, more than 8,300 people are estimated to be homeless in King County, according to the 2004 one-night count.

Until the arrival of Tent City 4 last year brought the issue to the forefront, many people were unaware of the problem on the Eastside, said Shelley Noble, director of emergency and family services with Hopelink. The agency provides a limited amount of short-term housing at its emergency shelter and a network of two-year transitional housing for women and families.

Transitional housing is typically where homeless people can find the time, support and security to focus on developing skills, but there’s a lack of such housing for single men on the Eastside, Noble said. “They’ve pretty much been left out of the equation, but this is going to be a step forward,” she said.

The men who stay in the Congregations program say they already feel lucky. They must follow some basic rules, including no alcohol or drugs, and all applicants have background checks before being admitted. In exchange, they get a safe, quiet environment different from what many emergency shelters provide.

“Being inside the church calms people down,” said Dan Reeves, a former Medina resident who found himself homeless two years ago. Since entering the program, he has decided to go into the ministry and plans to start school this fall.

Coaching could help some shelter residents get back on their feet more quickly, Reeves said after pizza and salad on a recent night at a church in north Bellevue. Contrary to the stereotypes, he said, most homeless men do want to find jobs and support themselves.

“They’re just normal people who got caught up in circumstances. Medical issues, the bad economy — all those things happen to middle-class people in Bellevue, too.”

Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704 or nsinger@seattletimes.com