Walla Walla Funds Alliance for the Homeless

Sylvie Corwin, Staff Reporter

Walla Walla county will give Walla Walla Alliance for the Homeless $100,000 this year to help run and boost the services available at the Sleep Center. The Sleep Center was started after Walla Walla passed a no-camping ordinance a few years ago. It consists of 31 insulated Conestoga tents, plus two larger tents for overflow, located on 4th and Rees near Veterans Memorial Golf Course.

The Sleep Center opens around 4:30 pm in the winter (around 6 pm in the summer) and closes in the morning. The plastic huts, with a 6ft by 10ft footprint, sit on raised platforms with a couple inches between each other. There is no light or heat, but there is insulation and bedding, which is sent off-site for washing. Trash cans and porta johns are provided and local groups will often serve prepared meals.

Director of Community Health Meghan DeBolt is part of the committee which distributes the approximate $300,000 the county raises for homeless and housing projects through document recording fees. In the past these funds have aided programs such at the Blue Mountain Action Council, the STAR project, Walla Walla’s teen shelter The Loft, and other organizations.

“Our role in homeless housing is really at the level of system coordination,” DeBolt said. “We’re responsible for ensuring that our community has access to needed services, and so we do not provide any of those services directly.”

Along with the county funds comes a stipulation that the Walla Walla Alliance for the Homeless must provide more ways for the homeless people utilising the Sleep Center to find more stable housing, specifically through case workers.

“The Sleep Center is not considered shelter,” DeBolt said. “The Conestoga huts do not constitute shelter. They’re tents, they’re just really nice tents.”

Separate from the $100,000 for case workers and improved services, the Sleep Center is seeking funding for their planned move to a new location in April. Whitman biology Professor Nancy Forsthoefel is the volunteer coordinator for the Sleep Center.

“The businesses that are right there next to the Sleep Center did not like it, did not want the Sleep Center to be located where it is, and the city –– and I don’t know why they did this –– they made promises it would only be for one year,” Forsthoefel said. “One year past and they renewed it a second year because they still hadn’t found another location….They were getting a lot of pressure from the businesses….and so they, I think, just wanted to keep the promise that it was going to be a temporary thing.”

While the new location is larger, the capacity of the Sleep Center will remain the same. They are, however, adding two moveable classrooms, purchased from Milton Freewater school district, which will house sinks, showers, office space for case workers, and laundry service for the bedding which the Sleep Center provides. Travis, who grew up in Walla Walla and currently stays in one of the Conestoga tents with his partner Katie, plans to move with the center in April.

“[At] the new spot we’re going to have showers and stuff so it will be way better, ‘cause right now, unless you’ve got a place to go, you only can get a shower once a week at Pioneer, or if you’re in the Exit Homelessness program you can take showers more than that,” Travis said.

While Travis and Katie sleep in their hut, they cannot stay there during the day. Residents must either store their belongings in lockable bins, or take it with them during the day.

“We will save the hut for them as long as they continue to come. So if, after two days, they don’t come and somebody else needs the hut then we’ll turn it over to the next person,” Forsthoefel said.

A no-sitting ordinance limits the places the homeless population can go during the day.

“Especially the weekends, like Saturdays and Sundays, there’s nowhere really to go because everything’s closed and so we got to find a place to stay and the cops are always bugging us about where we’re sitting or want us to move,” Travis said.

Another resident at the Sleep Center, Catrina, has trouble finding places she can go with her service dog, a chihuahua name Oscar, during the day.

“I’m not even allowed in the library with him,” Catrina said. “He hardly barks….He [barked] in the library one day and the librarian goes ‘You have to quiet him down.’ He’s a dog. Dog’s are going to bark when someone’s walking up to them, that’s exactly what I said. ‘Well you have to leave the library’ –– I’m like ‘What the fuck? He’s a fucking dog, dog’s are gonna fucking bark.’ And I’m cussing at her walking out ‘I’ll just call the fucking cops, you won’t even let the fucking service animals in.’”

The Sleep Center occupancy varies throughout the year, tending to go up in the winter. Forsthoefel estimates about 45 to 50 people are currently sleeping there daily. Meleco Martinez has been staying there for a couple months after he missed his bus back to Iowa where his wife and children live. Martinez grew up in Walla Walla until around age 12 and returned for what he thought would be a short trip. He was robbed at gunpoint and has been trying to find work the past three months to get enough money for a bus ticket back. Because his credit cards and phone were stolen he has not been able to access his savings or contact his wife and three young children, except once, in the past months.

“It’s got to the point where it’s bound to happen, someone’s going to say ‘Oh well you abandoned your family,’ but I’m just stuck, but on their end they don’t know that,” Martinez said. “And if I get the satisfaction to see my kids –– not knowing the exact situation as to how she feels as to not seeing me, to either let me see my kids or just show up like that –– but the looks on their faces will make it so much worth it.”

Martinez has applied to multiple minimum wage jobs the past months but been denied from all of them.

“The one staid reason I was given as to why I was denied, which I have never heard of in my life, is being overqualified. I’ve never heard of anyone in this world being overqualified to work a McDonald’s job,” Martinez said. “I’ve never made under 45 dollars an hour, and it’s a downfall compared to what I’m used to. So that’s one part of my story where I’ve become more than grateful, because you get charities and people going out of their way to help people like us, or people who can’t do for themselves….I was that person who didn’t have to ask, and now that I have to ask it kind of hurts in a way.”