WENATCHEE -- Desiree Knemeyer remembers the snowy November night two years ago when she realized how badly Wenatchee needed an overnight teen shelter.
It was 9 p.m., closing time for Solomon's Porch, a teen outreach center downtown. A couple dozen teens had been hanging out all evening, shooting pool, playing Guitar Hero and gabbing about life on the Porch's comfy sofas.
When it was time to lock the door, one girl hesitated to leave. Knemeyer knew a little bit about her; the teens there tend to open up to 27-year-old Knemeyer, also known as "The Porch Mom."
The girl was a couch-surfer. She slept around with different guys, offering her body in exchange for a night's stay. The girl had gone so long without food she thought her belly was distended. In reality, she was eight months pregnant.
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"I could see tears running down her cheeks as she walked away," Knemeyer said. "I just couldn't do it anymore. It was wrong."
After that night, Desiree and her husband, Steve Knemeyer, dreamed up three phases of the Aslan's Refuge Teen Crisis Project, named after the "Great Lion" in The Chronicles of Narnia books.
First, a commercial kitchen will qualify Solomon's Porch to eventually become a shelter. Second, they need an indoor stairwell down to the Porch's 2,500-square-foot basement. In the last phase, they will build a laundry room, a bathroom and eight individual bedrooms downstairs.
The couple needs $700,000 to pull it off: $75,000 for the kitchen, $11,000 for the stairwell and $100,000 for the basement remodel. The rest is to pay off the mortgage on their space and 24/7 staffing for the new shelter.
Through grants and fundraisers, Solomon's Porch has already raised about $351,000, half the seed money it needs to become a shelter. Volunteers began tearing down walls last month to make room for the commercial kitchen. Knemeyer hopes to finish it next month.
In the meantime, there are no teen shelters within 100 miles of Wenatchee. Haven of Hope and The Bruce Hotel will only take youths if they're accompanied by an adult. Other shelters will only take people over 18, Knemeyer said.
Until Aslan's Refuge opens, the doors at Solomon's Porch are open 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. for teens of all kinds, ages 13 to 20, whether they're homeless, bored or looking for friends. Knemeyer estimates nearly 500 youth have dropped by this year. She logged nearly 2,700 visits.
"We try to make it really homespun," she said. "We want them to experience what it would be like to come home for the first time. We really work with them on feeling at ease."
The volunteers offer homework tutoring in the afternoon, and a safe place to hang out in the evening. They also help teens navigate the social services network if they need it.
Free food Fridays are the most popular nights, bringing in anywhere from 30 to 70 teens. Earlier this month, the Wenatchee Free Methodist Church delivered Christmas stockings and a full spread of food.
"It's hard to wrap your mind around how there are homeless children living on our streets. It seems like Wenatchee is sheltered until you know more about it," Debbie Walker said as she dished up some chili.
While the crowd Friday night looked like the typical high school mix -- nerds, preps, punks, goths, thugs -- a survey taken last spring showed that 46 percent of the teens at Solomon's Porch had been homeless in the past three months.
For 15-year-old Taylor Westlund, the Porch is an escape from the two-bedroom house she shares with 18 other people.
"I come here every time they're open," she said. "People really open up to them (the staff). I feel like I can tell them anything. They love us and I love them."
As people walked through the door Friday night, the regulars greeted them with a hug. Most of the 30 teens there knew each other.
"This is like our family," said 17-year-old Kirk Dove. He has a steady home, but he sought out Solomon's Porch for a place to hang out. He couldn't stay out of trouble hanging out with the crowd at Washington Park.
"We might not be tied by blood, but this is like a second home to me," he said.