Sherry Tillman is the first point of contact when a family experiencing homelessness in King County reaches out to Mary’s Place. “Every family that calls in, it’s an emergency,” she says.

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The woman was calling from somewhere outside in Bremerton. She and her fiancé had been sleeping in their car and had reached the end of their rope, or their wallets. But most definitely their hope.

“Do you need shelter or do you just want Mary’s Place?” Sherry Tillman asked. “Well, we have eight shelters, but this is the …”

This is the Community Emergency Family Shelter Intake Line, which makes Tillman the first point of contact for anyone in the county reaching for a rung to pull themselves out of homelessness.

Because she works at Mary’s Place, Tillman’s job is focused on families with children in need of emergency shelter. Other homeless populations — single adults or couples — are advised to call 211 for help.

But it’s Tillman’s job to tell them that, and offer them some options. So I spent some time the other day sitting across from her, in what was once the drive-up window of the PI Bank building, witnessing what felt like air-traffic control for not planes, but lives desperate to avoid a crash.

“Do you have a pen and paper?” Tillman asked, then waited. I could hear the crackle of the woman’s voice through the phone. There was a pause. A laugh.

While the woman searched, Tillman told her that Mary’s Place was only for families with minors, but that there are other permanent or transitional shelters, most of them with 90-day limits.

She told her that they did reunifications of families where the children have been removed by Child Protective Services or are staying with relatives.

And she could connect the woman with any number of housing programs. The federal Section 8 program, something with the city maybe?

But start here, Tillman said, and gave her the number of the Downtown Emergency Shelter (206-283-6070). Ask for a woman named Miriam.

More crackling through the phone.

“OK …,” Tillman said. “Right … yeah … well, I’m sorry to hear that. OK … If you want, you can call me back, too … OK, that’s fine. I look forward to it.”

She hung up the phone, looked over and gave me a quiet smile. No head-shaking. No judgment.

Tillman has been working in this job for less than a year.

“I’m a quick learner,” she told me.

But it’s more than that. Tillman, 47 and the mother of five, was homeless for three years. She now lives in Auburn with her youngest, who is 13. The rest of her children are grown and gone.

She works five days a week, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. — but is always on the job, writing down the 24-hour phone number for people she sees on the street.

“When I first started I was a little emotional all the time,” she said. “All I can do is the best that we have. You have to have patience, and listen.

“Every family that calls in, it’s an emergency.”

Tillman hears more than words from the other side of the line. The rain and wind. The constant hiss of traffic across whatever wet roadway people are standing along.

Families tuck into the backs of U-Hauls because they’re cheaper to rent than hotels. They live in the woods, where the only protection they have is pepper spray. One woman was sleeping on the street with a 2-month-old baby, and rode the bus all night to stay warm. Others find shelter in hospital emergency rooms, where they try to blend in. Or they spend a dollar to buy a cup of coffee at Denny’s so that their kids can sleep in the booth.

“They’re just trying not to be noticed,” said Alyson Moon, the director of the Mary’s Place Family Shelter. “I see people in circumstances that I don’t know if I would have the strength or endurance to survive.”

An average of nine families a day called in and were screened for shelter last month. On the slowest day, three families called in for help, and on the busiest, 16 families were frantically looking for a place to stay, according to Tyler Henderson, the data specialist for Mary’s Place.

The lighter days fell closer to Christmas, he said, when families had more options with family and friends.

The busiest day was Dec. 8. Henderson and I checked the weather that day, just to see what brought on the rush. The high was 44 degrees, the low 30. No rain, no snow.


“It could be anything,” Henderson told me.

If Mary’s Place can’t get families into shelters, they will send out a diversion specialist, who helps move people into permanent homes. The program covers move-in costs for working people who don’t have any felonies. More than 100 families were placed from April to December last year.

“The solution is simply more beds and more housing,” said Marty Hartman, Mary’s Place executive director. “But I would add hope. And that’s here.”