Shelter draws mixed views from neighborhood

2018-01-13 | Walla Walla Union-Bulletin

Jan. 12--A meeting at the former Grace United Methodist Church sought to assuage parent and neighborhood concerns about the establishment of a temporary center for homeless women and their minor children near Berney Elementary School.

About 35 people attended the meeting, many upset about the short notice they'd received about the center being set up.

Some came away feeling more comfortable; others remained wary of plans.

The Grace Center at 1520 Pleasant St., which the Rev. Juli Reinholz of Pioneer United Methodist Church said completed permitting yesterday, is to occupy the building from Jan. 15 through May 31.

It would shelter up to 15 women and children who don't qualify for shelter elsewhere.

The YWCA, which operates a shelter for women and children displaced by domestic violence, is one of several partners in the endeavor.

The Grace Center would be operated as a ministry of Pioneer United Methodist Church with help from a variety of other nonprofit and activist groups as well as the county government.

Organizers said they hope to raise its $36,000 budget through grants applied for by United Way and the Blue Mountain Action Council and from donations collected at the church and from other sources.

The center would be open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. on an as-needed basis, though it could have more hours during the daytime on weekends, according to Reinholz.

It would be staffed at all times by both a center manager and a student from Walla Walla University's social work department.

The women and children staying there would all be participants in the Blue Mountain Action Council's Coordinated Entry process, which connects homeless people with a variety of services aimed at getting them shelter, employment, necessary social and medical services and eventual long-term housing, and none of them would be past or current victims of domestic violence.

Center planning started in the fall in light of the Christian Aid Center beginning construction to rebuild and expand its facility for homeless women and children.

The Grace Center is meant to temporarily meet a growing need that other local entities serving the homeless cannot, YWCA director Anne-Marie Zell Schwerin said.

The YWCA's funding is targeted toward women who have been victims of domestic violence and their children, and can't be used for women who haven't been in those circumstances

The YWCA is at capacity. Christian Aid cannot handle more than it currently serves. And the city's sleep center is full and does not permit children to stay there.

That leaves a gap.

"There is nowhere for these people to go," Schwerin said

Organizers expect the opening of the Christian Aid Center's new facility for women and children at the end of May to alleviate the need for such a stopgap. While the Christian Aid Center has maintained the same number of beds for women and children during the construction of the new center, spokeswoman Corina Car said, it hasn't been able to meet a growing need for them.

"There's always been a shortage, and that's why we are building this bigger shelter," Car said. "Last winter there was a shortage, and this winter other agencies in the community are being proactive and saying, 'What can we do while we're waiting for the Christian Aid Center?'"

The first rumblings of controversy about the Grace Center appeared on Facebook this week, a day after a PTA meeting at Berney Elementary School during which members were informed of the plans for the center.

Grace Center organizers said they contacted Principal Michelle Carpenter in early December to inform her of their plans. They also passed out fliers in the neighborhood on Monday to announce Thursday's meeting.

People at the meeting said they were taken aback by the fliers, and many said they didn't receive fliers or hear about the center until neighbors and the PTA began circulating information online.

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"The drama got started because we weren't informed," one woman said. "You should have let it out."

"There's a trust issue," another opined.

Reinholz said that organizers waited to inform the community in part because city approval for the center was still not final, and in part "to keep it from becoming a destination" that would attract homeless people who had not been vetted via Blue Mountain Action Council's Coordinated Entry process.

Other meeting attendees expressed concerns about the center drawing men to the neighborhood in search of their girlfriends or children and causing disruptions in the area. Dogs, one said, could be set off barking, and others worried about possible drug use.

"It's not the women, it's the guys," local landlord Mike Allison said. Upon hearing that the center's night managers would all be women, Allison pointed to another man attending the meeting and said "No, I want this guy to be the night manager." Before the meeting, Allison said he was wary of homeless services in general.

"Let's not get too inviting," he said.

Reinholz said the center's night managers were women due in part to concerns for the comfort and safety of the women staying there.

"It's about not leaving yourself open to opportunism," she said, adding that visitors are not permitted and a strict 9 p.m. curfew will be enforced.

Connie Zamora, a former staffer at Helpline, which operated the STEP women's shelter before its closure in 2015, said she is among three women set to serve as night managers. She said concerns people at the meeting raised were rare when the STEP shelter operated.

The meeting ended with some neighbors offering to volunteer and donate items from the center's Amazon wish list, while others saying they were less than satisfied.

"I would love for this to all work," neighbor Andre Kuschatka said. "But we live in a society of social media ... you're not going to hear about all the good you're doing here. You're going to hear about one bad incident."

Andy Monserud can be reached at andymonserud@wwub.com or 509-526-8326.

WCIC is the United Voice of the Construction Industry in Washington State.