Homelessness in Walla Walla

In Walla Walla, the issue of homelessness has been on the minds of many this last year. Though several organizations in the area, such as the Walla Walla Alliance for the Homeless, the Walla Walla Warming Center, have focused on helping this group through the difficult winter and to provide safe and secure housing, the homeless camp and a growing homeless population in the downtown area have been contentious topics.

Recently, in response to the growing concern, the Walla Walla City Council unanimously, though with the absence of Dick Morgan, passed an ordinance which limits camping on public property save in specific designated campgrounds, aiming to keep the homeless from sleeping downtown and disrupting local businesses and to confine outdoor sleeping to the already established homeless camp. Another ordinance that was shot down at the same time as this public camping ordinance concerned a “no sit, no lie” policy, in which would have made it illegal to sit or lie on public sidewalks downtown from the hours of 5am to 11pm. A motion was passed to reject this policy and passed 5:1, with only Jerry Cummings voting against the rejection of the ordinance.

To learn more about these issues and the policies of the city council, the Walla Walla County Democrats invited Tom Scribner and Barbara Clark to speak on the current situation at the March monthly meeting.

Tom and Barbara, two city council members who voted in the favor of the ordinance but were two of the greatest detractors of the “no sit, no lie” ordinance, began their presentation by explaining how the current mode of thought regarding the issue of homelessness has developed in the city council. Within the city council, there are two main ideas, the first that has the guiding premise that the city council has the responsibility to help better the lives of the homeless population and the second that has the primary goal of supporting Walla Walla businesses and is therefore opposed to their sleeping downtown, as it may disrupt businesses in the area. This second mode of thought seeks to fulfill only the minimum requirements, i.e. providing people with a safe place to sleep, without seeking to give these people the stability and assistance that can help them transition into permanent housing, a goal that Barbara Clark seems in strong favor of.

Though these two modes of thought were noted as being largely “Democrat” and “Republican” by Tom Scribner, Barbara Clark was quick to point out that the issue of homelessness is one that has had bipartisan interest and that the homeless camp has received assistance from those on both sides of the aisle, who have donated food, their time, and camp supplies.

The recently passed ordinance supports this second mode of thought and could be implemented because of the existence of an alternative locale for those sleeping downtown, i.e. the homeless camp. The question remaining now is which mode of thought will prevail when shaping how the homeless camp will look in the future. As of a city council meeting on March 22nd, it has been decided that the homeless camp will move to a location on the Fort Walla Walla property, likely east or northeast of the amphitheater, but how many people will it accommodate, what will the accommodations and amenities be, and who will pay for these amenities? The city council is forming a committee to deliberate on these questions and the city staff will work with the Alliance for the Homeless to discuss necessities for the camp. One possible option that is more in keeping with the second mode of thought is the possibility of creating a set fund for the camp and finding an organization that can manage the camp and distribute the funds as they see necessary so the city will not need to be additionally involved. The topic of the homeless camp and how it will evolve is one that is not yet decided and community members are encouraged to attend city council and committee meetings to make their voices heard.

Here is a brief paraphrased summary of the Q and A.

Q: Is Walla Walla criminalizing homelessness? Will people found sleeping downtown by the police be taken to the homeless camp?

A: Tom Scribner (paraphrased): That was not the intention and I have not yet heard of any police enforcement. I don’t know how the police will handle it beyond saying that it is against the city ordinance and suggesting the homeless camp.

Q: Currently, there are camp rules for behavior to keep the camp and community safe – how does the city plan on dealing with people who break the camp rules but are required to live there?

A: Barbara Clark (paraphrased): There is an ongoing negotiation between the Homeless Alliance and city staff about which elements are required for the camp and the governance rules. As it stands at the moment, everyone has a right to be there unless they violate specific rules, in which case they can be expelled – first for 24 hours and then, after a second offense, for some period of time to be determined by the city manager. Unfortunately, this doesn’t extend to chore duties, etc. As far as what we can do for the people who have been expelled, there has been a discussion about an alternative campground for those people, one that would not have amenities or regulations.

Q: What about those who are homeless but under 18? Will they go back into the foster care system or is there anything else we can do for them?

A: Barbara Clark (paraphrased): Minors who are accompanied by a parent or guardian can stay in the camp but, unfortunately, those who are not will continue to be unable to stay there. As an alternative to the foster care system that unfortunately has limited space, the County Health organization, BMAC, and some other groups have received grant money and are creating a youth services building that will house Lincoln Health Center, counseling services, and 4-5 beds.

For more information on the topic of homelessness in Walla Walla, you can read several related Union Bulletin articles: For Walla Walla’s homeless, a place to call ‘home’ and Walla Walla City Council nixes homeless camp relocation. For more information on the the ordinances mentioned in this article and the city council discussion surrounding them, you can view the meeting minutes and agenda.