Updated: Jul 6
The first five years of the Walla Walla Alliance for the Homeless could not have happened without the work of amazing volunteers and the community. Time, dialogue and proven strategies transformed adversarial relations into partnerships with other non-profits and agencies in Walla Walla who have the needs of their community at heart. City officials and council members, along with County leaders, were willing to try, fail, learn and problem-solve. Through it all, volunteers with a heart for those in great need have exhibited exceptional patience and perseverance to keep working through the ups and downs of organizational and program development. We just didn’t quit. Nor will we quit in the future. There is much more to do.
Here’s the story of the Alliance history, how it all started, and what the future holds!
In the Beginning……
It the spring of 2015, attorney, community organizer and activist Dan Clark was on his morning walk when he observed police removing a group of homeless men from under an overhang of the unused memorial pool shower building. It was pouring rain. When he asked one of them: “Where are you going from here?” The answered “We have no idea.” Dan said to himself: “Walla Walla can do better than this.”
Right there, the seeds of the Walla Walla Alliance for the Homeless had been planted.
As Dan continued to think about this problem, he located a property on W. Pine that was for sale and zoned for a campground and emergency shelter. He organized a meeting at the First Congregational Church to discuss the community’s homeless crisis. About 100 people attended to seek information and express interest in developing the site as a homeless shelter. At the end of the meeting, Dan suggested organizing and electing officers.
Right there, the Walla Walla Alliance for the Homeless was born on July 6, 2015.
A steering committee began meeting regularly at Pioneer United Methodist Church and once the Pine Street property was purchased by a group of anonymous donors, plans took shape for a tiny home village. Ideas were borrowed from other tiny home communities in Portland and Eugene, Oregon. Volunteers developed a site plan and promotional strategies took shape.
However, as soon as the “homeless shelter” idea became public, the “Not In My BackYard (NIMBY)” movement responded. In protest, neighbors of the Pine Street property formed a “safe neighborhood” organization.
There was much decent:
The County leaders had recently adopted a 5-year plan to “end homelessness,” so even the need for such a facility was challenged.
Key non-profits who had committed to the County’s five-year plan also opposed the project.
The Union-Bulletin editorialized against it because of lack of a management plan and questionable location.
City planners determined that the zoning was only for a “recreational” campground, not a homeless campground.
So, the City officials decided the best thing to do was arranged a public hearing - with a judge brought in from another community to decide the case.
For many in the Alliance, the public hearing was a low point. Neighbor after neighbor and several community leaders spoke in opposition of the idea. Weeks later, the ruling finally concluded that the Alliance had the right to build what was to be called Madison Park, but each tiny home must have a half bath and an individual sprinkler for fire suppression. Success legally. But the cost of those added design features was going to be at least five times the original estimated cost. Trying to raise money for such an unpopular and expensive project no longer made sense.
So, the existing buildings on the property served as storage and laundry facility for several years until its sale in 2019. The funds from the sale of the property were returned to the donors.
“Camp Chaos”….THAT brutal winter of 2016-17
Day after day the temperatures remained below 20 degrees. The winds gusts were more than 50 miles per hour, and of course, repeated dumps of snow
Although we were feeling defeated by the community, a ruling by the 9th district court opened another option. Bell v. Boise (now Martin v. Boise) stated that removing unsheltered people from every available piece of public property amounted to criminalizing homelessness with cruel and unusual punishment and was thus unconstitutional. Seeing the possibility of a lawsuit amid public concern about homelessness, city officials looked at options. Since the city owned an unused small piece of land at the base of memorial golf course, a homeless campground was allowed there on an interim basis, beginning the summer of 2016.
Alliance volunteers got to work. The city ran a water line to the site and brought in portable toilets. Fencing, tents, sleeping bags, and other items were brought in by donors. Firewood allowed for a campfire. Dan Clark organized a camp council to set rules and procedures. Leaders were chosen. For a while, things went fairly well as campers were grateful to have a legal place to camp and help from the community.
However, as weeks went by, issues grew. A few disruptive folks made it difficult for everyone. When volunteers left in the evening, visitors slipped in the back emergency gate. Drug and alcohol abuse became more common, especially with certain campers. An unauthorized shelter across the lane added to the unruly nature of the area. Then, it got very cold. The snow and ice collapsed the tents and provided little shield from the cold. When the ground thawed, poor drainage at the site turned it into a mud hole. Volunteers were burned out and the City was clear that this place the Alliance came to call “Camp Chaos” - had to be gone by the Memorial Day holiday weekend, as the nearby renovated Memorial Pool opened.
But camp chaos had taught some lessons. Walla Wallans could no longer deny that there was a significant unsheltered homeless population that was not going away. Downtown merchants noticed a dramatic decline of street people when they had a better place to go. The Alliance’s idealism gave way to evidence-based need for a secure fence, lockable gate, night security, and durable shelters.
The Sleeping Center Development – No More Chaos
Give credit to City officials for problem-solving. Six new locations were considered, but each encountered loud “not in my backyard” voices. So the city put it temporarily in their own back yard – on Rees Avenue behind the garages of their corporate yard. The site was graveled and safely fenced. They contracted for night security. A water source, portable toilets, and garbage collection were arranged. Tent platforms were built that could become floors of Conestoga huts, a design copied from Eugene and considered “hard-sided tents” for zoning purposes. The summer of 2017 saw 31 Conestoga kits built off-site and installed onsite. The initial Walla Walla Sleep Center was in operation.
Volunteers Building the Conestoga Huts
Learning to operate the Sleep Center took time and dialogue. Since the site was City-owned, enforcing rules required a cooperative effort between police, City officials, volunteers, and security staff. No cooking was allowed, but hot water pots were, so ramen noodles and oatmeal had to suffice. A 9’ x 9’ gatehouse was the only inside space, so propane heat in a canopy allowed a small place to get warm. A few unruly clients made life more difficult for several nearby businesses, so strategies to mitigate the impact had to be developed. It was crowded, but at least it was safe. Hut-dwellers could sleep at night. And the Conestogas were weather-proof and about 20 degrees warmer on a cold night than the outside temperature.
The Finished Conestoga Huts - Sleeping Center, V1
Initially, City officials envisioned that the temporary location for the Sleep Center would only last about a year. Unfortunately, looking for a permanent site proved daunting, and it took time to bring a new location online once a suitable site was found. Eventually, the City did a land swap with a contractor and approved a variance to the zoning in order to develop a permanent location at 1181 W. Rees Avenue. The property was leveled and fenced, including a 24’ x 72’ pole shed within the perimeter. The City purchased two portable double classroom units from Milton-Freewater School district, then City staff had the portables set in place and provided access to them. Alliance volunteers remodeled the interiors to fit Sleep Center needs. What emerged was a common room, office space, onsite laundry for bedding, showers, additional restrooms, and two caretaker bedrooms. Part of the pole shed was remodeled into overflow sleeping space. Almost two years from opening the original site, a Henderson Homes crew and volunteers relocated the Conestogas and opened a spacious new site with facilities.
Sleep Center, V2 - Moving Day May 3, 2019
Facilities at new site, including office space, allowed the Exit Homelessness program and related staff to work with clients on location. In one year, almost 50 homeless persons connected with housing resources and found permanent homes. Services for employment, benefits access, and physical and mental health became far more accessible. Individuals began to trust that help was there for them if they used it.
The Alliance took a major step forward in year four. With a grant from Sherwood Trust and the leadership of consultant Louise Bourassa, the Alliance board developed a strategic plan for its future. Included in the plan was a clearer sense of its mission, enhanced operating procedures, and a job description for an executive director.
After completing her work as the Alliance’s consultant, Louise graciously agreed to serve on the board and led the process of seeking an executive director.
Dr. Tim Sullivan, Executive Director
The result was the hiring of Dr. Tim Sullivan. With thirty years of experience in education, including schools with lots of kids with Adverse Childhood Experiences, he brought experience and expertise in dealing with many of the Alliance’s clients. As a former school principal and administrator, he knows how to reach into the community to create positive change. And he has great respect and strong support for the mission of the Alliance.
And then, in the midst of developing the organization, the COVID-19 epidemic and governor’s “stay home; stay healthy” order dramatic changed operations. Since most shelters require their homeless clients to leave during the day, “staying home” was not possible for them. As a result, state money allowed the center to remain open 24/7 with three meals per day provided. We have hired staff to cover additional hours. New permanent bed space and additional programming continue to come together.
Through the many challenges, we didn’t quit! And although there are many challenges, we are committed to sustaining our mission:
The Alliance provides homeless people in Walla Walla with access to safe shelter, basic necessities and the resources needed to transition to stable housing and self-reliance.