Walla Walla has a long history of generous leaders addressing homelessness. Over 100 years ago, a group of women organized the YWCA because young women who left the farm were on the street and unable to find jobs or housing of any kind. In those days, only “women of ill repute” stayed in hotels, “women’s work” included few job options, and no bank would open an account for a woman. So women leaders raised money, organized, and formed alliances in order to provide shelter.
After World War II, the Christian Aid Center was organized because so many men returned from war with shattered lives and related alcohol abuse. The faith-based shelter emphasizes sobriety and rebuilding souls and bodies. More recently, CAC added a women’s shelter and 12-step programs founded “Oxford houses” to shelter those in recovery.
The Loft, a shelter for homeless teenagers, opened a little over a year ago after major fundraising efforts. Many clients are youth who attend the trauma-based programs of the alternative Lincoln High School. In connection with that effort, Walla Walla was awarded funding through A Way Home Anchor Community Initiative program to work with disadvantaged youth and young adults.
Therefore, it is not entirely surprising that Walla Walla was fertile ground for the Walla Walla Alliance for the Homeless and its partnership with the city to create the Sleeping Center. This behavior-based center, the only low barrier shelter in the region, fills a major gap for those with active addictions, significant mental health challenges, homeless couples, or owners of dogs. Of course, some clients are simply out of work or in major crisis with nowhere else to go.
Now that the COVID-19 have stretched the community’s resources even further Walla Wallans have again responded positively. State funding allowed staffing for the center to be open 24/7, but it did not cover all the needs. That’s where the Alliance and its donors come in.
In a time of physical distancing, having individual huts is a vast improvement over the typical dormitory-style bedrooms. Clients still use common bathrooms and interact in various other ways, but significant exposure is much less likely with private sleeping quarters.
The shower trailer which we envisioned as community outreach is now serving clients at the shelter as well. It allows safer showering than the increased exposure of indoor showers.
Meal donors have continued to supply dinner every evening and for Sunday lunch. Big Cheese Pizza covers one dinner per week. Church soup kitchens have adjusted to new requirements and coordinated services. Providence provides lunches six days a week and sends a nurse once a week to meet with clients. Donations of needed bedding, batteries, and hot-water-ready noodles or oatmeal continue.
Although some volunteers have needed to pull back because of health risks, others have stepped up. Some have made masks or covered other needed items. Sanitation protocols have dramatically increased.
No one knows the ultimate impact of the COVID-19 epidemic on our community. But the impact of generous people is abundantly clear. Our generous village is again responding in the midst of increased human need.