About a year and a half after a makeshift tent city only partially survived heavy wind and snow, the city of Walla Walla has won an award for investing in more resources for the homeless.
The Association of Washington Cities gave Walla Walla the Municipal Excellence Award at its annual conference last week. Despite the praise, Deputy City Manager Byron Olson said the road ahead is long and difficult.
“I don’t think there will be a full solution to this particular problem,” he said.
The AWC specifically noted the city’s work with the Walla Walla Alliance for the Homeless on establishing a sleep center last spring on the grounds of the City Service Center at Rees and Fourth avenues.
Olson said that last year the city spent $150,000 on platforms for 31 weather-resistant huts, cleanup and site preparation. The Alliance for the Homeless bought the huts, and a team of volunteers assembled them. The costs to the city should be lower this year because they will only have to pay for maintenance, Olson said.
People can enter the sleeping center at 6 p.m. and must be out by 9 a.m. the next day, but they won’t lose their spot unless they are gone for more than two nights.
Before the sleeping center was up and running, Olson said, many homeless people were living in an unregulated tent village, made up of sleeping bags, tents and strung up tarps, between the Veterans Memorial Golf Course and U.S. Highway 12, Olson said. Some of them collapsed under the weight of snow in the 2016 winter.
“The city, along with the (Alliance for the Homeless) determined we could not have a repeat of that,” he said.
Since then, Olson said, the sleep center has served about 250 people.
“Anybody who is on the street knows the hardest thing to find is a safe place to sleep at night,” said Chuck Hindman, chair of the Alliance for the Homeless board. “You can’t do anything unless you got that.”
He said homeless people sleeping during the day is such a common sight because sleeping at night is often unsafe. The Alliance also offers safety for their belongings in the form of 64-gallon garbage bins, unused, where those staying at the sleep center can lock away their things.
Hindman said the sleep center has been running at capacity every night for the past few months. Last month, the 31-unit facility averaged between 39 and 40 people per night, with couples occupying some of the huts.
People do not have to return every single night to keep their place, but if they are gone for two nights, the Alliance allows in newcomers to take their spot. Hindman said he has seen someone wait for five nights in a row before a hut was available.
At its current levels, he said, the center is about as big as it can get.
“Forty people is a lot of people to manage,” Hindman said. “We’ve had as many as 46, so we don’t want to grow.”
Establishing a relationship with social workers who can help people find more stable housing and employment could relieve some of that pressure, he said.
The Alliance provides a place to sleep for about one-third of Walla Walla County’s unsheltered homeless people, Hindman said.
Amy Beaver, 45, said she has been staying at the sleep center on and off for the past six months.
“It’s a pretty good place,” Beaver said. “It’s a lot better than the Tri-Cities.”
At a similar center in the Tri-Cities, she said, they did not allow people to come and go past 5:45 p.m. Sometimes, Beaver said, people need to step out for a cigarette or just to get away from the stress of being near so many people.
“Here, they let me go for a walk when I need it,” she said.
The Walla Walla sleep center is usually peaceful, Beaver said, except for people snoring.
“I snore though, too,” she said with a laugh.
Craig Volwiler, vice chair of the Alliance for the Homeless board, said the center needs more room.
“It’s way too crowded,” Volwiler said. “You can’t expect 45 people with stressful lives to live next to each other and keep the peace.”
He said the center needs twice as much space, but it is under the city’s control. Volwiler does not know what will happen next time the space needs to relocate, which he said should happen around next April.
“All of us are concerned about what will happen when this space moves,” he said.
The lack of permanence adds to challenge for both the Alliance and the people staying at the sleep center, Volwiler said.
Some have been homeless for long enough that they have given up, he said.
“Those people are the hardest to help,” Volwiler said.
Olson, the deputy city manager, said the city can only do so much to fight homelessness. He said he doubts Walla Walla has the resources to build its way out of the issue, meaning it will have to rely on other entities, such as the Alliance for the Homeless or the Christian Aid Center, which provides emergency shelters for the homeless.
Finding shelters is only part of the solution, he said. Preventing homelessness means access to robust mental health resources, chemical dependency treatment, jobs skills training and transitional and affordable housing.
“We are a long way from the finish line,” Olson said. “I’m not sure there will ever be a finish line.”