“We’re not sick but the rich people and everybody else is”: Walla Walla homeless population faces few COVID-19 cases during taxing year

Abby Main, Staff Reporter

As COVID-19 spread through Walla Walla over the past year, the local Sleep Center, which helps provide shelter for people who are homeless, has largely avoided the brunt of infections.

Corine Hammac describes herself as having been around the Sleep Center forever. Her “hut” is one of 37 Conestoga shelters lining the perimeter of the Center’s gravel lot across from the State Penitentiary. Inside the shelter, a friend helped Hammac turn a splotch of pink nail polish left by a previous occupant into an intricate painting of a fairy perched on a toadstool. 

“You got to do something with these walls or they’ll drive you nuts,” she said, gesturing toward the silvery aluminum-like sides of the Conestoga. 

Over the past year of pandemic, most of which she spent at the Sleep Center run by the Walla Walla Alliance for the Homeless, Hammac noticed a pattern:

“I’ve been saying this for a minute, but homeless people haven’t gotten sick. I don’t really know what to think about it, to be honest with you,” she said. “We’re not sick but the rich people and everybody else is.”

According to Chuck Hindman, the former Board President of the Walla Walla Alliance for the Homeless and a regular volunteer at the Sleep Center, there have only been a couple of positive COVID-19 cases in Walla Walla shelters, none of which were in the Sleep Center.

As Hammac noted, a contributing cause may be that Walla Walla’s homeless population is largely outside —  or, in the case of the Sleep Center, separated in individual dwellings when inside — possibly limiting the virus’s spread.

“It’s a perverse advantage that so many people are unsheltered,” Dr. Margot Kushel, the director of the Center for Vulnerable Populations at the University of California, told The New York Times. “Ventilation is good and outdoors is safer.”

Walla Walla’s vaccine rollout is also expected to ease the strain on this community. Clients of the Sleep Center over 50 years old, as well as those living in congregate care settings, are eligible for the vaccine. Even so, not all who are eligible are interested in getting it.

Hindman expects there to soon be outreach efforts from Population Health and county health in an effort to increase the number of vaccinated shelter residents as well as unsheltered people.

Brandon Waynefisher, who’s been at the Sleep Center since July, said he doesn’t “necessarily believe in the whole thing [COVID-19].” Even so, he says the pandemic has greatly impacted his life.

“I think it’s caused a lot of people stress and also kind of hindered them from getting certain things done. It’s been more difficult for people,” Waynefisher said. “Like for me, I lost my ID before I came over here … so it’s been a bit more difficult to get things done without identification.”

Hammac has encountered some of the same impacts. “Oh, jobs. Just jobs,” she responded when asked how life at the Sleep Center has been affected by the pandemic.

“Open up stuff so we can take care of ourselves,” she urged. “Seriously, I need to get an ID, and I can’t get an ID because the DMV [is closed]. I can’t even go get a Social Security card because of my ID, and all this other stuff.”

Walla Walla’s Sleep Center and Christian Aid Center received funds last March (in the form of a Washington State Department of Commerce grant) which allowed both centers to move from providing nighttime shelter to operating 24/7. The Alliance for the Homeless, as well as other area shelters, participate in Friday morning Zoom calls with the county government, Providence Population Health and Blue Mountain Action Council to coordinate the county strategy for avoiding COVID-19 spread among the unsheltered homeless population. 

“[The grant] allowed for additional staff and help with meals,” Hindman said. “When funding for lunches ran out [at the Sleep Center], area church soup kitchens increased their response so that both Christian Aid and the Sleep Center receive free bagged lunches for all their clients. The result is a marked decrease in vulnerable individuals hanging out downtown and elsewhere during the day.”