Written by Chuck Hindman, Alliance Chair --
Has there ever been a public hearing on sheltering homeless people, without statements like “not in my back yard?” What will happen to my property values? Will we be safe?
As a result, almost every municipality either ignores or under serves its homeless population instead of persisting with efforts to reduce the problem. Even in Walla Walla, where the City’s Sleeping Center recently garnered an award for excellence in municipal governance, locating a shelter is extremely tough.
However, the Alliance’s experience with the Walla Walla Sleeping Center has taught us that another word besides “location” is just as important - “management.” Currently, the Sleep Center is located in the same part of town as one of the largest “shelters” in the State. Some of Washington’s poorest and most dangerous citizens live there - the Washington State Penitentiary. Yet few in the community have any fears about its location so near to them. They know that the Penitentiary is secured in such a way that even serial killers are not a threat to neighbors. It’s the management, not the location that makes it safe.
Recently, the behavior of some individuals congregating just outside the Sleeping Center became increasingly disruptive. Emergency 911 calls increased, staff struggled to keep order and a nearby business had an employee threatened. Substance abuse increased and arguments became more common and staff who intervened, encountered growing resistance.
Yet leaders did not talk about shutting down the Sleeping Center. They compared notes and concluded that a relatively few instigators were the root of the problem. Most were “outsiders” who had been trespassed from the shelter or had gone outside to avoid the rules. But they still hung around. And they were disrupting the entire area.
In response, the Police, City Management, the City Attorney and the Alliance worked on solutions. The City Council agreed with those recommendations and unanimously approved a legally appropriate “no sit / no lie” ordinance. It essentially bans camping or partying within 300 feet of the Sleeping Center. Those who camped outside during the day were given notice and sufficient time to relocate. When those inside the center were told the reasoning behind the changes, they generally agreed with it.
The results have been dramatic. Commotion outside the gate diminished by about 90%. Items that littered the sidewalk and parking strip disappeared. One of the volunteers jokingly suggested she might have to take up knitting because there was so little drama. And someone from a neighboring business sent a note of appreciation to the Police and City for their help.
As the City officials work on finding a new location for the Sleeping Center next spring, they are being careful to locate it in a place that creates as little chance of disrupting neighbors as possible. However, we also know that what counts just as much, is the way in which the center is managed. It’s the management, not just the location that makes it work.