Like it or not, there are homeless people in Walla Walla, some of whom are difficult personalities. It’s easy to complain about them, but that doesn’t solve anything. So what can we do about it? What should we do about it?
If, as a community, we did nothing we would end up like almost every other city. We would have scattered tent camps everywhere. When a group moved from one camp to another they’d leave their trash. We’d see people sleeping in doorways and alleys. That would not be good for our tourism industry, which brings in over $140 million each year to our region. And it would not be good for those who struggle with homelessness.
The city of Walla Walla has decided that it is far better to provide a place for the homeless to go. That place is the Sleeping Center. Whether you like the concept or not, you probably have to agree that it is better than the alternative.
It may seem expensive, but it’s cheaper than dealing with scattered messes, and is costs only about 0.1 percent (that’s fractional 0.001 percent) of our tourist industry’s value.
Is the Sleeping Center enabling?
Well, it offers what amounts to insulated weatherproof tents, water and toilets. There is no electricity, no heat, no cooking and residents must leave each morning by 9. Many of the 6-foot by 10-foot huts “house” two people. The entire square footage of all the huts is 1,860 — it’s equivalent to 45 people living in a single mid-sized house.
By U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development standards, those huts are considered “unfit for human habitation.” But it is better than sleeping on the street, is safe, and is managed by caring volunteers.
The Alliance for the Homeless provides sleeping bags and blankets. In frigid weather, we give out hats, gloves and dry socks that are necessary for survival.
Usually, we have hot water, ramen noodles, oatmeal and instant coffee. But that’s about all. Sometimes a community group or church brings dinner, but it’s not consistent. And, by the way, guests must obey simple rules.
As for enabling, the real culprit is handing $5 or $10 to those holding up cardboard signs. All that really does is encourage more people to hold up cardboard signs. Give instead to agencies like Helpline, the Christian Aid Center, BMAC, the YWCA, the Alliance, church soup kitchens or food banks.
As for solutions, two evidence-based strategies are known to effectively move people out of homelessness and into productive lives.
The primary strategy is called “Housing First.” Its premise is that you move people into stable housing first, because you can’t solve any of the underlying issues until the person has stable housing — whether those underlying issues are mental illness, substance abuse, lack of job skills or stable employment.
That strategy is increasingly embraced at all levels of government. Several agencies in town are working to provide Housing First, but we desperately need more housing options, especially at the low end of the housing market. There are no short-term, easy solutions, but we are working together to make progress.
The second effective strategy is intensive case management. Trained social workers and peer specialists meet each client where he or she is, without passing judgement, to gain their trust and assess their situation, needs and potential.
These case managers help them decide how they want to change, what steps they need to take to reach their goal, and then work with them over time to help them progress.
Thanks to funding from the county, the city and Alliance donors, this case management layer is being added at the Sleeping Center. This strategy has proven to save money and reduce homelessness in every community where it has been implemented.
Craig Volwiler is a retired CEO, local “wine hobbyist,” and vice president of the Alliance for the Homeless.