Unruly behavior outside Walla Walla’s sleep center for the homeless has reduced dramatically following new restrictions passed by the City Council last week, advocates and police say.
“We had a well-managed, under-control situation inside and we had an unmanaged situation outside,” said Chuck Hindman, chairman of the Walla Walla Alliance for the Homeless, whose volunteers work in the sleep center.
People who work in the area around the center on Rees Avenue submitted statements to the City Council last week, describing instances of people outside the center yelling at them, fighting and drinking.
The City Council drew a perimeter, between Fourth Avenue and U.S. Highway 12 and Moore Street and Rees Avenue, in which people cannot sit or lie down in sidewalks, parking lots and other rights of way.
Hindman said that among the about 50 people who use the sleep center, a small group of about five was causing the problems. However, he said issues escalated over the summer because the sleep center’s huts would get hot and more people chose to stay outside until they cooled down. The sleep center has also been at capacity for months.
“The police were there way too often,” Hindman said, “so everybody agreed this can’t go on this way.”
He said he tried to maintain his patience and reason with people outside the center because he was concerned new restrictions would negatively impact those who were not causing problems.
“The situation was that with the kind of behavior happening outside the fence it was threatening the viability of the sleep center,” Hindman said. “So you get to a point where you got to save what’s working even though you know there are some things that aren’t.”
Since the new restrictions passed the City Council last week, he said the change has been dramatic. The city has pledged to move the sleep center by April, and Hindman said it will have to reckon with new challenges when that goes through.
“We think we’ve got this problem under control for now,” Hindman said.
Walla Walla Police Sgt. Kevin Bayne said law enforcement had to respond to complaints about activity outside the sleep center almost twice a day, but the change since last week has been drastic. Calls came from nearby businesses, sleep center volunteers and people using the sleep center, he said.
“I hope people who were feeling unsafe at the sleep center now feel it’s a safe place to go,” Bayne said.
The problem often began when someone would spend time in the sleep center, but were then barred because of their behavior, Hindman said.
Federal law requires cities to allow people to camp in certain public areas overnight if there is no alternative. The city’s existing anti-camping laws are legal, according to City Attorney Tim Donaldson, though these are lifted when the sleep center is full, which it has been for months. Donaldson also approved the new restrictions.
Preventing drinking, drug use and other unlawful activity outside the sleep center was a challenge, Bayne said, because there was often evidence, but no real way to pinpoint who was responsible.
“I think it was clear that (the new law) was designed to address that behavior and it appears to be working,” he said. “I hope it continues to do so.”