Our community has an opportunity to get ahead of a problem that has spiraled out of control in other areas.
While there are no easy solutions to aiding the homeless among us, our community has not had an excess of issues with encampments and the problems that can come with many folks with few resources huddled in makeshift living areas.
Anyone who has visited Portland, Seattle or even Yakima lately has seen encampments and the exploding population of people who live life daily in tents and campers, under overpasses or in doorways.
Homelessness has long been a big city problem that has now found its way into communities like ours.
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While we usually enjoy a mild climate, this has been one tough winter. Can you imagine trying to make it through the past few months with nothing but a tent? Some aren’t even lucky enough to have that for shelter.
One Tri-City ministry has sought to help those in need, providing meals and shelter for people who don’t have either.
But sometimes good deeds and intentions cross paths with rules and regulations.
And that is just the conundrum faced by Dayspring Ministries in Kennewick. Leading its ministry out of a church near Vista Way, Dayspring has been trying to fill a gap in services for those down on their luck or on the street by choice.
The group started feeding folks, and then saw the need for overnight housing as well. It expanded its service by creating an improvised shelter for 50 on the second floor of the building it leases. An encampment sprung up in the parking lot. The group estimates that it serves 100 meals a day and leaves its bathroom open for use overnight. Its leader moved into the building for a time to help keep watch on the camp and those the building serves.
Many who are homeless struggle with mental illness. Dayspring says it has become a refuge and a place where law enforcement officials sometimes take folks in need, but it acknowledges it’s not trained to handle people with mental illnesses. And we all know our community is sorely lacking in facilities for those with mental illness.
Churches have long had more leeway with local governments in serving the needy and have some protection under state law. But not at the expense of safety.
Kennewick officials told the ministry they could not house folks overnight because of building code violations, citing safety. Dayspring ignored the order, saying it was too cold to push even more people onto the streets at night. The city forced its closure a month ago.
No one tracked where the 35 or so folks using the shelter overnight ended up after the city closed it for safety violations, though the nonprofit is still serving meals. Dayspring would like to fence the camping area and rehab the building to meet city codes, but that takes money it does not have and an assurance that it can operate those facilities with city approval.
While it’s definitely a challenging situation, Dayspring and the city have forged a positive relationship, becoming allies as they aim to keep the peace and serve a fragile population.
The city is looking at ordinances adopted in other cities to manage church-sponsored homeless camps. Officials expect a recommendation from the city planning commission in the next few months.
We appreciate the willingness of Dayspring to provide services for those in need and fill an important gap in our community. And we appreciate the city for its thoughtful and supportive approach to the work being done. We certainly understand that safety is paramount and that some kind of structure for these facilities must be adopted.
Let’s not let this evolve into an issue that is beyond the grasp of either entity.