Written by Chuck Hindman, Alliance Chair -- All over our country, communities are struggling with how to shelter homeless folks who have no safe place to sleep at night. The problem is persistent, perplexing and pervasive.
One reason that homelessness has become so common is that many communities have in effect eliminated inexpensive housing and shelters, by exclusive zoning, strict building codes and escalating costs. This has priced more and more people out of the rental market. And if poorly kept people with backpacks show up as a result, the problem is most often addressed by removing them from one place to another.
Non-profits and various agencies trying to shelter homeless people inevitably encounter huge barriers. The Not-In-My-Back-Yard crowd – NIMBYs - quickly organize opposition whenever homeless housing is suggested in their area. A combination of fear and judgment easily galvanize opposition to letting “those people” locate nearby.
So - how did Walla Walla manage to create its Sleeping Center? It began with organizing the Alliance for the Homeless and pushing City leaders to take seriously the Bell v. Boise case. That case ruled that a place to sleep at night is a constitutional right based on our founding principles: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The ruling mandated that in order to enforce no-camping ordinances, municipalities must provide a designated place where sleeping on public property is allowed. If homeless people must “just go away,” they must have a place to go. As an activist attorney and the Northwest Justice Project pushed this point, all parties agreed they were better off spending money on services, rather than a lawsuit.
Walla Walla’s first major attempt at addressing the lack of shelter was to set aside a piece of property for a temporary campground. The Alliance for the Homeless oversaw donations of tents, fencing and creation of a camp council. Volunteers helped out as much as they could.
What emerged was a "tent city" with all kinds of problems. There was little power to enforce rules, no lighting at night, and no locking gates to keep "visitors" out. Theft and substance abuse were common. Then winter arrived with its snow and rain. Although downtown was far better off without people sleeping on the street but this “tent city” was not the solution. So City officials met with the Alliance to shape a better response.
Immediately, choosing a location ran into problems. Six different City-owned sites were suggested with each of them immediately opposed by NIMBYs. Finally, the City said: "OK. We'll do it in our backyard" and found a location behind their garages in the corporate yard. They fenced, leveled, graveled and lit a 42' x 205' site. The Walla Walla Community College built tent platforms to proper specifications and the City provided 64-gallon unused garbage cans adapted so they could be locked storage.
The Alliance then built kits for the conestoga huts. They were built based on a construction manual from Eugene, Oregon’s Community Supported Shelters. Each unit cost about $1,000 in materials and took 30-40 hours to build. The result was the Walla Walla Sleeping Center with 31 conestogas, a donated gatehouse and night security. The City provides portable toilets, pays utilities and funds security as well as a small salary for our camp manager. It costs about $120,000 per year to run.
As for zoning, the City allowed the insulated and weather-proof conestogas as "hard-sided tents." There is no cooking at the center, and folks must be out by 9 and stay out until the center reopens at 6 (4 or 5 in the winter). As such, the conestogas are not "domiciles" and therefore allowed as emergency shelters in certain zones.
This year because of its Sleeping Center, Walla Walla received an award from the Association of Washington Cities for Excellence in Municipal Governance. Both the Alliance and the City are proud of their efforts and continually work to improve them.
With perseverance and cooperation, cities can begin to impact homelessness in positive ways.