WALLA WALLA — Lunch al fresco in downtown Walla Walla was an idyllic setting until a finger came over the railing toward Damien Sinnott’s plate.
“Hey, you going to eat that?” the stranger asked, leaning into Sinnott’s meal and interrupting a business meeting.
It was the best of both Walla Walla worlds: a beautiful afternoon with good food disrupted by an uninvited guest.
For Sinnott, vice president of public policy and business development for the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce, the encounter underscored rumblings he’d already been hearing about the emergence of aggressive panhandling and concerns about large clusters of people congregating and creating an intimidating atmosphere for patrons of local businesses — a recurring warm-weather issue for the community over the last several years.
This time, Sinnott and other local business leaders are looking for constructive ways to be proactive with the changing dynamic rather than reactive.
On Friday, the Chamber will host a town-hall-style meeting of business owners and city and county officials at the Walla Walla Police Department to hear concerns and discuss potential solutions for growing homeless activity and aggressive behavior. The meeting begins at 8 a.m. in the Chuck Fulton Community Room.
“Looking back at last summer, we had a fairly significant issue involving homeless people gathering in Heritage Park, and it grew into a problem,” Sinnott said. “A lot of businesses were having aggressive unacceptable behavior in that area.
“I see that same behavior and that same issue kind of percolating to the surface again. It’s not to the degree that it was last year, but we can have the conversation earlier.”
Business owners anecdotally have reported various degrees of property damage, people sleeping in public spaces, public urination and defecation, and uninvited guests helping themselves to utilities and resources.
This year, more people have moved from Heritage Square Park to Crawford Park, the gateway to the Downtown Farmers Market each Saturday.
Market Manager Cheryl Thyken said it’s not unusual for her to arrive early for set up to find someone sleeping in the bus shelter. That, she said, isn’t as worrisome as the groups of people who have been known to cluster their on occasion and become confrontational or aggressive — behavior she said may deter people from wanting to frequent the market.
The effects on commerce and downtown pedestrian traffic are ultimately driving Friday’s meeting, Sinnott said.
But solutions are difficult for a number of reasons. First, the various local residents who gather downtown can’t be painted with broad strokes. Some are homeless. But within that population are subsets of people — some homeless by choice and others not.
Some are folks who have a place to stay at night but not necessarily during the day. Some aren’t homeless at all but just looking for a place to gather and spend time.
For the most part, Thyken and Sinnott agreed, people can all co-exist well downtown. But as some visitors downtown become more aggressive approaching strangers or contributing to an intimidating environment, the result can harm business by making patrons want to stay away.
The meeting will also reportedly be attended by Debbie Dumont, who oversees the Walla Walla Council on Homelessness.
Solutions are also difficult, said Walla Walla Police Chief Scott Bieber. Last year, the department added an officer for downtown foot patrol on Friday nights and Saturdays between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The idea was to have an officer on the ground and visible to reinforce a sense of security downtown for locals as well as visitors.
“We get it,” he said. “Our bread is buttered, too, by tourism, and we really want a safe place for everybody.”
The move seemed to help, and it also continues this year, he said.
But he said enforcement is tricky.
“The issue for us a lot of times is people won’t call us when something is occurring. They’ll complain the next day,” Bieber said. “If it’s happening and someone is being aggressive, we need to know right away. We need to observe it and catch the person in the process.”
Additionally, much of what is experienced is often unwanted behavior, but not necessarily illegal.
“It’s a quality of life thing,” he said. “We all want a decent quality of life. A certain portion of it is people feel uncomfortable around people who are different than they are.”
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at 509-526-8321, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter.