Helpline, Homelessness and Change

Larry Nelson, Board Chair, Helpline of Walla Walla

Walla Walla County is set to lose a homeless shelter at the end of the year in a major change in community policy.

Following a long and comprehensive study by the Walla Walla Council on Homelessness (WWCH) led by expert consultants, Walla Walla County has adopted a 5-year plan to reduce homelessness in the community. A key part of the plan includes shifting resources away from temporary homeless shelters in favor of long-term housing solutions. The thinking behind this shift in resources is that temporary shelters can be stressful for clients and thus should be minimized whenever permanent solutions are an option.

The most immediate effect of this policy change is a redirection of homeless funds. The STEP women’s and children’s shelter annual budget of $150,000 is funded by approximately $100,000 from the County and $50,000 from generous Helpline donors. Given this missing County funding and sea-change in philosophy, the STEP Shelter is simply not a viable service in our community.

Founded nearly 40 years ago, Helpline has been on the front lines of serving the underserved. In response to an urgent community need, Helpline ventured into new territory and opened the STEP Shelter in 2009.  At that time, homeless women who were not victims of domestic violence had no available shelter (the YWCA excels in its focus on serving victims of domestic violence).

The STEP shelter has provided our community with a crucial service for helping vulnerable women to comfort and safety. But given the County’s five-year plan and the decision to move funds from temporary to permanent housing, this cannot continue.  The Board of Helpline is committed to working with our social service partners to provide a smooth transition for STEP residents.

Our dedicated social work staff at STEP has doubled their efforts to help build life-plans for each woman facing transition.  We are grateful to partner agencies such as Walla Walla Housing Authority, BMAC, Comprehensive Mental Health, The Christian Aid Center and the YWCA that have joined us in this effort. Helpline’s goal is to have each STEP resident transitioned to stable, long-term housing by the end of the year.  Joint efforts to find housing for our clients will be an early measure of the feasibility of the County’s five-year plan.

We are proud that Helpline was able to fill a critical need in the community with STEP.  We will maintain our focus on our central mission of connecting homeless and low income individuals with available resources.   It is important to remember that STEP clients represented only 2% of the people Helpline serves.  The other 98% will continue to come to our door for assistance and direction.  We serve thousands of people every month.

It is an honor to serve this community through the work of Helpline.  I am grateful every day for the dignity of our clients, dedication of our volunteers, generosity of our donors, skill of our staff and cooperation of our partner agencies.