The city of Walla Walla entered into the operation of the Sleep Center at the request of several local downtown businesses (including the urging of the Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Foundation and a City Task Force for the purpose of recommending actions to the City Council) for several reasons, but primarily to: (1) protect small downtown businesses and local commerce, (2) protect local jobs, (3) protect the high quality of life our residents experience and (4) ultimately, to protect sales tax which funds many general fund expenditures.
Your City Council did not want Walla Walla to gain the reputation other cities had garnished of having uncontrollable homeless camps throughout its downtown corridor.
To put the Sleep Center operation into a quick and informal perspective for readers, my belief and understanding is that the city is attempting to provide a simple and safe location for homeless adults to sleep and at the same time encourage our communities’ well-being by providing an ongoing safe environment for local business and commerce to flourish and also protect and provide a higher level of security for our citizenry and their personal property.
The city’s expectation at the Sleep Center was never to directly provide medical, counseling or recovery services to homeless residents but, certainly, was to allow those social services to be provided by outside agencies who were qualified and interested in serving this population.
I know of no city, obviously including Walla Walla, that offers any type of social services or counseling programs to their citizens.
However, I recognize the concept of providing these services by an outside agency to the homeless is certainly valuable and obviously will benefit in the recovery process.
At this point, I want to applaud the Alliance for the Homeless for stepping forward and partnering with the City of Walla Walla in efforts to help both the city and the patrons of the Sleep Center.
Through the Alliance’s timeless efforts, the camp has been abnormally successful in my eyes.
Yes, the camp has cost the city taxpayer money, but several positive things have happened.
First, many homeless people have found a safe haven to sleep.
Secondly, some have returned to work and have again became tenants living in rental units within the community.
Third, our downtown commercial area is basically free from homeless camping.
Fourth, a large particular group of homeless individuals are easier to identify and serve collectively than when they were scattered throughout the area.
I also want to extend kudos to the Christian Aid Center and the YWCA for their longtime efforts to provide shelter services to homeless individuals in the Walla Walla Valley — truly needed services supported by voluntary financial contributions from citizens of the Valley.
Now, my point for writing this article:
I have frequently quoted throughout my tenure on city council the motto of the Chamber of Commerce which simply states: “Those things we do best, we do together.” The homeless population is not just a city of Walla Walla problem but a county, regional and obviously identified national problem.
From all the “point-in-time” counts (despite rumors floating around that most of the homeless are transient without ties to Walla Walla) I am told almost all of the homeless served at the Sleep Center have direct ties to the Walla Walla Valley.
The county is creating hardships on a contract for funds to help support Sleep Center operations by requiring case management services (the county contract states the city must “Include supportive housing services, aka case management, which will include wrap around services for individuals who need assistance in addressing physical and mental health challenges, financial barriers, and to move individuals from homelessness into housing ...”)
Why can’t these services to the homeless in the Walla Walla Valley become a partnership and collaboratively be provided by the county-funded mental health program or from the county-funded Homeless Coordinator who is housed in the Walla Walla County Health Department?
Both programs are funded by taxes collected from all citizens who live, work and/or own property in Walla Walla County.
After all, I assume both of these agencies are better equipped to help people with social and mental issues. Ultimately, everyone’s goal is to provide services to alleviate homelessness.
Homeless people, like most small subgroups, congregate together in bigger jurisdictions for companionship and also because they find more free or accessible services in larger jurisdictions.
In essence, they migrate to the city of Walla Walla when they become homeless.
Sleep Center intake interviews conducted by the Alliance for the Homeless volunteers indicate several homeless individuals have relocated into the city from the unincorporated portions of the county and/or from other smaller incorporated communities within Walla Walla County to seek shelter, safety and/or services.
Homelessness is not just an issue within the city limits of Walla Walla only and should be addressed as a regional issue.
Partnerships work best and problems are solved the easiest when we work together.
I have built strong alliances throughout my tenure on the Walla Walla City Council with other regional elected officials, and I hope we can continue to work collaboratively to build an effective and cost-efficient regional model to address homeless issues in our county which serves both the homeless and the taxpayer.
Local jurisdictions coming together to build an effective model to help people should be the ultimate goal.
After all, it is the Walla Walla way!
Jerry Cummins has served on the Walla Walla City Council for 28 years.