WALLA WALLA — “Stay Out of Can! No Dumpster Diving! I Will Report You!”
About 30 people stared at the sign posted in a downtown alley above a commercial Dumpster as Tim Meliah pointed it out. Then everyone, many bundled into boots, gloves and puffy jackets, moved on into the night to look at other places homelessness shows its face in Walla Walla.
The temperature hovered near 50 degrees at 6:15 p.m., a far cry from a few weeks ago when the thermometer dropped much lower, Meliah said.
“What would you need to sleep outside in that?”
Walla Walla homelessness tour
A slideshow from the Jan. 15 tour of Walla Walla looking at homelessness.
The walking tour was one part of a debut event hosted by the Walla Walla Council on Homelessness, the most recent version of those tasked with reducing the problem here.
“Invisible Walla Walla: A Realistic Look at Homelessness in the Valley” was conceived as a way to change up just about everything regarding how housing insecurity is locally addressed, said Noah Leavitt, a member of the council and assistant dean at Whitman College.
Instead of pulling together the usual list of social-service agencies to problem solve, the council wanted to expand ideas with a more diverse group, Leavitt explained. Law enforcement personnel, educators, medical professionals and business people were asked to help find solutions. “Less looking at the numbers and more looking at the larger picture,” he said. “There’s only so much you can learn from numbers.”
The council wanted to find a way to help people understand the realities — the veteran with lingering trauma who can’t live successfully in traditional housing, the domestic-violence victim who cannot go back home.
About 150 people appeared to agree. The evening began at 5:30 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church with the kind of supper a homeless person might receive — about eight ounces of soup and a slice of buttered and toasted bread. As people ate, they listened quietly to one woman’s account of how she became homeless.
Tawny Scotton was a single mom, raising four children while working two jobs, she told a rapt audience. “But two years ago I lost both jobs and ended up homeless. You never think about that ... because you’re educated. College education.”
Scotton ended up “couch surfing” with her young family. That meant staying here, there and everywhere friends could offer space.
“One finally said, ‘You need to do something different and can’t stay here anymore,’” she said.
It was the “blessing in disguise” that changed her life. Scotton found herself crying in her car at Helpline’s STEP shelter for women, she recounted, blinking back fresh tears at the memory. “There’s really no words to express what it feels like and you could walk by me on the street and never know.”
Scotton has regained her footing, once again employed in two jobs and a recent homebuyer, she said.
“I used to say, ‘I don’t know how people can let that happen.’ But it can be a number of things,” she said. “But I know this is a community you want to live in, there is so much help.’”
With soup in their bellies, those in the fellowship hall broke into three groups for the walking tour, visiting the Christian Aid Center and YWCA, both which offer year-round help to homeless people. Not only with a bed to sleep in, but in getting hooked up to community resources and ways to move forward, noted YWCA Executive Director Anne-Marie Zell Schwerin.
Even when people list a shelter address as home, they are legally homeless, she told those visiting the facility.
“We had more children and larger families in 2013 than ever before,” Zell Schwerin said. “And multigenerational families — mom, kids and grandma.”
The YWCA hosts victims of domestic violence and their families, in stays from one night to 90 days and sometimes more, she said. The average stay is 79 days, up from 26 in 1998. That’s attributed to fewer affordable option for permanent housing, Zell Schwerin said.
As the tour continued, Meliah took care to point out spots known to be frequented the homeless. Covered stairwells and large bushes at one Walla Walla church, for instance, get sleepers out of the line of vision of others, provide overhead protection from wind and rain and some sense of security.
“Safe and unseen,” he said.
The event was a giant first step, Debbie Dumont said this morning. Dumont oversees Walla Walla County’s Department of Human Services homelessness and housing programs.
Not only were organizers of “Invisible Walla Walla” happily stunned at the large turnout, but the fact that nearly all returned to St. Paul’s after the walking tour to brainstorm was validation that many are eager to engage in solutions, she said.
Great ideas were broached in the debriefing period, Dumont said. Stickers on businesses willing to offer homeless people a list of resources without police involvement, a coordinated entry point for all appropriate services — that will kick off Friday through Helpline — and a “well communicated” plan for emergency-weather warming shelters are at the top of the list.
“We now feel we have a huge responsibility to carry this forward,” Dumont said of the Walla Walla Council of Homelessness, adding that members no longer feel alone in tackling the issue.
“There’s a lot more conversation to happen.”
Sheila Hagar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8322.