Written by Chuck Hindman, Alliance Chair --
Mark September 5, 2018, as a milestone for the rights of homeless people.
The long-awaited appeal decision on the Bell v. Boise case affirmed that cities cannot criminalize homelessness. Every U.S. citizen therefore has a right to sleep on public property if they have nowhere else to go. Someone can be cited for disturbing the peace, using illegal drugs or inhibiting passage along sidewalks, but they cannot be prohibited from just sleeping on public property.
The case of Bell v. Boise was the legal basis for Walla Walla establishing the Sleeping Center on Rees Avenue. With the support of the City of Walla Walla and the management of the Alliance for the Homeless, it currently provides a safe place to sleep for any adult who has nowhere else to go, as long as they will abide by a few basic rules. Those rules are necessary in order that the camp can be peaceful and safe for everyone, but they do not mandate sobriety or participation in a faith-based program.
The City of Walla Walla’s low-barrier, behavior-based Sleeping Center is what allows the City to enforce no-camping ordinances as long as space is available at the center. However, low-barrier shelter does not mean no-barrier behavior. Guests at the Sleeping Center soon learn they will be back out on the street if they disturb the peace of the camp, abuse substances inside the fence, threaten another guest or create a mess. A compassionate City does not have to be an unruly city.
Nor does shelter mean luxury accommodations. The Sleeping Center’s huts are safe for sleeping on cold winter days if someone bundles up, but there is no electricity or heat. Sanitation is limited to a single water faucet and portable toilets. Cooking is prohibited, so hot water is provided to those with ramen noodles or oatmeal, especially when food is not donated and brought to the Center by friends of the homeless. The Center opens around dusk and guests must leave by 9. Volunteers and night security make it safe, but it’s not always comfortable. Some may call this response “enabling” and worry about attracting outsiders, but an unheated hut and bare necessities seldom do either on a cold winter’s night. They just allow a safe night of peace.
In spite of its meager approach to serving homeless persons, Walla Walla seems to be a leader in responding to a city’s legal responsibilities. This summer, Walla Walla received an award for excellence in city governance because of the sleeping center. When our city attorney contacted the Bell v. Boise legal team in Washington, D.C., to ask about details of the case, they commented: “Oh, we know all about Walla Walla.”
Like compassionate people everywhere, many of us want to do more to reduce homelessness and are working to strengthen our response. Still, it feels good to be a little bit ahead of the curve. Walla Walla was complying with Bell v. Boise at least two years before its appeal was decided. And now, we share ideas with other cities on affordable and effective ways to begin the process.