Longtime Sleep Center volunteer Jan Foster answers five questions
Jan has worked with the homeless population in Walla Walla for many years as a board member and a volunteer. She currently works at the Sleep Center just about every day of the week, which gives her a unique understanding of the day-to-day challenges.
Q: How long have you been working with the Sleep Center?
A: Since October of 2016. 2021 will mark five years. It doesn’t seem that long, though, because the Alliance has been so busy.
Q: Why is the Sleep Center important to you?
A: Before living in Walla Walla, I had never lived anywhere for longer than three years, so when I arrived here in 1979, I realized a phenomenon I had not been aware of, which is that people can live where their ancestors lived. There are families in Walla Walla that are five or six generations old, and that was new to me. When there’s a very long attachment to a place, it creates a sense of responsibility that develops over time, and this has now happened for me after 41 years in Walla Walla. I’ve been very happy here, partly because of its size. With about 35,000 people, no one is more than six degrees of separation from everyone else. One of the things you notice about Walla Walla is that if you want to do anything – something good, something new, something difficult – all you have to do is gather five or six friends, and you can find your way to just about anyone that might be able to help you. In a way it’s like a big family. Most people who live here want what’s best for the community, and the lifeblood of the city is the neighborhoods. Everyone takes account of what’s happening in their neighborhoods, and what’s good about the Sleep Center is that it’s so clearly part of the overall community. The people who are at the Sleep Center are here in part because of what we as a community have done or not done. 70% to 80% of the people who use the Sleep Center are from Walla Walla or Milton-Freewater. They were born here, stayed here, went away and came back, but in all cases, they have connections here. The camp itself is an acknowledgement of that relationship. If we can bring ourselves to look at them and the situation they’re in, we can do things to help them not experience the types of trauma they do. It helps to not have homeless people downtown, but it also helps those of us that are ‘homed’ to feel that we’re doing something to correct the kinds of social mistakes that a free market economy generally brings into play. It’s not just sweeping people off the street. If we were doing that we’d put our homeless population on a bus and drive them somewhere else – it’s called Greyhound therapy, and lots of towns do it – but that’s not us. It would mean sending our people elsewhere, and that we will not do.
Q: How has the Sleep Center changed since you began volunteering?
A: It has changed a lot! The original conversation was very simple: let’s not let anyone die from the cold. That early objective led to everything else. I don’t think we would have gained much ground from that point if it had remained the sole thrust – we would have stopped at warming centers in the winter. But that initial idea led to a small piece of land at the base of the public golf course with tents and open fires. Those early days were chaotic and very difficult. It was far too small for so many people, it was unsafe for the guests, and it was also too close to Borleske. We can’t tell homeless people to leave public parks downtown if there’s no place for them to go, that’s a legal situation, and the original location was the only place we were offered. As difficult as that location was, it had an important effect: homeless people were no longer hanging around downtown. This led to a message from downtown merchants to City officials that essentially said ‘whatever you’re doing, do more of that.’ This was going to mean a more permanent location that was safer and larger. That led to our location on Rees Avenue, which was slightly better but still too small for the forty-five or so homeless folks we were sheltering every night. Also, the shelters at the second location were tents, useless in winter weather. But then Craig Volwiler came on board and that’s when things really started to improve. Craig found a group who had invented the huts we use now. He visited them, watched one being built, got the plans, and started creating a plan of his own for huts in Walla Walla. The huts are triple insulated – underneath, on the ends, and over the top – they’re not warm, but they don’t collapse under snow. Craig ordered up all the materials cut them to the correct sizes, gathered a gang of us together, and we built the first hut. We showed that to the City, and they agreed to allow us to build 31 huts. Then the City moved us once more, to our current location, which is much bigger, safer, and more organized. At first the new place felt like a really primitive motel, not much in the way of interpersonal connection. But increasingly, there’s a sense of community among the residents, which is good because community develops in humans a habit of responsibility for each other.
Q: What have been the challenges with Covid?
A: The first thing that changed was that the City asked us to be open all day, and that required us to double the number of volunteers. It’s extra challenging to find volunteers during a pandemic. (At this point, our interview is interrupted by a camper who has managed all the showers for the evening. She did a nice job!). And then the second challenge seemed like a problem at first, but upon reflection it might have been a good thing. We were finding that a lot of folks just sat around all day doing nothing. The service offices where they would normally get help were all closed. They couldn’t go to Work Source, BMAC, Comprehensive Mental Health, or the employment office, couldn’t get drivers licenses or IDs or food stamp cards – none of the things they needed to do to get on a track out of here were available. That phase lasted for about three months, and then people got so bored things started to change. A big help here was the Alliance’s social-work limb, Exit Homelessness, putting in place the first of our on-site peer-support specialists, and then shortly afterward a second one. The support specialists moved things along, and when you get people moving, they get out of the Sleep Center. And that creates kind of a culture of change. When the person in the hut to your left has gotten housing and the person on your right has gotten a job, you start to think you can do it too. So this challenge has turned into a positive as we’ve seen more homeless people finding their way back into the general economy.
Q: What’s one hopeful story about a client in the past year?
A: It’s always helpful when we get the VA involved. They’ve housed four or five of our Vets in the past year. We had another client whom we thought was really sunk, because she was pretty depressive herself, and had gotten into a difficult relationship with someone that needed a lot of looking after. She was spending all her time at the camp taking care of this person. But she got to working with our staff and they found her a place to live: great, right? But the next thing we knew, she had this other person almost living in her new apartment, absorbing her time, emotional energy, and financial resources. Our staff visited her frequently and encouraged her not to have anyone staying with her because it was a violation of the housing opportunity. Did she want to end up back at the Sleep Center? They supported her until she could stand on her own two feet, and now she’s in classes at the community college and she might actually have a second life. She has a chance to make it.