WALLA WALLA — Freezing weather is cause for everyone to take precautions, but downright dangerous for people living outdoors or in vehicles here, several Walla Walla social service leaders said today.
Debbie Dumont oversees programs addressing homelessness for Walla Walla County, and the issue is becoming more part of this community than it has in the past, she said.
“We’re used to seeing this in Portland, we’re not used to seeing it in Walla Walla,” she said.
In last January’s point-in-time survey of homelessness, more than two dozen people reported living outside or in cars. To date, however, there is no formal plan in place to help such folks stay warm — or cool — during the day in severe weather extremes, Dumont said.
“We don’t often see this kind of cold, for this extended period.”
The National Weather Service has issued severe wind chill watches — equivalent to 20 to 25 degrees below zero in the Walla Walla Valley — from Friday night to late Sunday morning for much of Northeast Oregon and Southeast Washington.
Next week’s weather predictions call for similar conditions.
All of which presents big challenges for homeless people, said Harvey Crowder, interim administrator for Walla Walla County Department of Human Services.
“For people trying to live on the streets, they will have a really difficult time maintaining safety and surety,” he said. “People living in their cars have the same issues. And if they try to run their cars, they risk carbon monoxide poisoning.”
There is shelter for subsets of the homeless population, such as Christian Aid Center for single men and some families, as well as Helpline’s STEP shelter for single women and moms with young children. There also is some money in a program that provides motel vouchers for very short stays for some emergency situations, she added.
In general, however, there are fewer options for people trying to stay warm during the day. Male guests at Christian Aid Center can use the TV room at the Birch Street building during the day and women can use space in family unit houses in extreme weather conditions, said Jason Wicklund, executive director. Those who access the center just for meals, however, typically don’t know about or use that option, he said.
The STEP shelter is unable to make daytime stays an option except on weekends, said Kelsey Beckmeyer, housing coordinator for Helpline. Normally the Eastgate area shelter is staffed and open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., but volunteers and staff are jumping in to get it open by 5 p.m.
“But they are still out of the shelter 10 hours,” she said of homeless clients. “Even those with young children.”
Many of the shelter’s clients will go to appointments with social service or education agencies during the day as a matter of course. In weather like this, they also go to the public library.
“That seems to be a hot spot,” Beckmeyer said. “It’s about finding places that are open and (clients) won’t be considered loitering.”
Helpline has seen a tremendous jump in donations of blankets and outerwear.
“But those are flying off the shelf as soon as they get here,” Executive Director Liz McDevitt said. “And I just stepped in from outside and it’s cold, I don’t care how many blankets you have.”
Homelessness advocates will present a forum in January to start a community conversation about cold-weather issues, Dumont said.
“To talk about community solutions, and a lot of sharing of ideas,” she said. “We want to do a walking tour of Walla Walla to see what it’s like to be homeless here in the middle of winter ... not just sit in a warm room and talk about it.”
Sheila Hagar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8322.