THE SLEEPING CENTER
When you are homeless the hardest thing to find, and the most important, is a safe place to sleep. Without a good night’s sleep, it is almost impossible to solve any of your other problems. The Sleeping Center goes a long way to relieving this barrier to progress.
In its first year of operation, the Sleeping Center provided over 10,000 safe nights of shelter, serving over 230 individuals.
The Sleeping Center, managed by the Walla Walla Alliance for the Homeless, provides a safe place to sleep for about half of the valley’s unsheltered homeless population. On most nights, close to forty people find respite there. Some of the residents are employed, but at jobs that do not support the high cost of housing here. Most of the others have disabilities or mental illnesses that make any normal employment difficult. Without other options, the Sleeping Center allows them to get a safe, full night’s rest.
If we have vacancy, the Sleeping Center welcomes anyone who is at least 18 years old, homeless, and can obey a few simple rules. It is different from many emergency shelters: Clients are assigned hut that is theirs for as long as they stay. A lockable bin provides storage for belongings so clients don’t have to cart them around with them. It is barrier free, allows couples to stay together, and accepts pets.
Because some clients stay at the Sleeping Center for a period of time, a sense of community has developed. Evening conversations are much like you would hear in any household, beginning with “How was your day today?” Many think of each other as part of their new “family.”
The Sleeping Center opens before dark and is staffed by Alliance volunteers 7 nights a week, until 10 p.m. After 10 p.m., security is onsite until 9 a.m. when the clients of The Sleeping Center depart.
Volunteers register new clients, assign them a hut, provide them with warm bedding as needed, and make sure they understand the few rules of the camp. When a client leaves the Sleeping Center volunteers remove the used bedding so that it can be washed, and make sure that the hut is clean and ready for its next guest.
Volunteers provide a stabilizing force within the Sleeping Center. Although they ensure the rules are obeyed, they are more like a mom or a dad than a security or police officer.
The Conestoga Huts
Thirty-one Conestoga huts form the backbone of the Sleeping Center. The huts are 6 feet by 10 feet inside with standing head room, and have a covered porch. The door is lockable, providing privacy as well as an important measure of safety. An operable window in the rear wall provides ventilation. The huts are completely weatherproof, even in strong winds, heavy rain or snow. They are insulated on all sides, but not heated. The huts were designed in Eugene, Oregon and have been is use there for four years.
The Sleeping Center also has a “Big Tent” --13 feet by 27 feet – that forms a common area for residents. It is often used for meetings or when local groups bring in food. The tent is heated in the winter, which allows clients to get into a warm space as needed. When all huts are occupied, the “Big Tent” can provide overnight shelter for up to four people.
The Sleeping Center has minimal sanitation facilities. Fresh water is supplied by a hose hydrant. Portable toilets and garbage cans are provided. There is no electricity in the huts or the common tent.
There are no cooking facilities in the Sleeping Center, though local groups often will bring a prepared meal to serve. Hot water and coffee are available at all times.
Charlie is a young man who stayed at the Sleeping Center for about two months in the dead of winter. He had previously been permanently banned from the Christian Aid Center for disruptive behavior and drunkeness. But he was sober now and working with organizations in town who were helping him put his life back together. I ran into him at BMAC not long ago and he told me that he was happy in his apartment and still going to meetings and was going to start school at the community college next semester. He was thankful for the place to stay and for all the encouragement and care he received while staying at the Sleeping Center.