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Sidewalk campers were hurting these Kennewick businesses. A city crackdown is helping

The city of Kennewick is cracking down on sidewalk camping near River of Life Metropolitan Community Church and Dayspring Ministries, on West Bruneau Place near Vista Way and Highway 395. A neighboring business owner said kids have resumed playing outside their apartments.
The city of Kennewick is cracking down on sidewalk camping near River of Life Metropolitan Community Church and Dayspring Ministries, on West Bruneau Place near Vista Way and Highway 395. A neighboring business owner said kids have resumed playing outside their apartments. Tri-City Herald

The streets near Vista Way and Highway 395 are mostly free of the sidewalk campers and piles of household goods covered by tarps.

It’s a sharp contrast from a month ago. Bruneau Place was a chaotic scene as people camped on sidewalks to be close to a ministry that serves free meals and a place to bathe.

The inevitable conflict between neighboring residents and the newcomers sent both sides to city hall last month searching for a solution to the standoff, which sent at least one business — a children’s boutique — to a new location.

The city responded with added police patrols and regular sweeps to remove items left on sidewalks around River of Life Metropolitan Community Church.

Wendy Robbins, who has operated a dance studio catering to young children in the Vista Way neighborhood for 14 years, said the initial response is already making a difference. The neighborhood vibe is coming back.

“There’s kids outside playing again,” she said. “For the last couple of months, that hadn’t been the case.”

Robbins said children who live in the apartments that face River of Life had stopped playing near the church. River of Life provides space to Daysprings Ministries, which operates a kitchen and bathroom facilities for the homeless.

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Vista Way business owners report less unruly conduct and garbage behind their businesses as the city of Kennewick cracks down on sidewalk camping outside a church that hosts a meal kitchen and restroom facilities for people who are homeless.

The church requires visitors to leave its property after lunch. For those with nowhere to go, neighborhood sidewalks became home. Neighbors reported rowdy behavior, aggressive panhandling, garbage, drug paraphernalia and human waste.

Emphasis patrols help clear the sidewalks.

The city posted signs in the neighborhood alerting people that it would remove material left in rights of way. It began sweeping up personal possessions about four weeks ago, tagging them and storing them at the police station on West Sixth Avenue for retrieval later.

There is a lot in storage, said Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg.

As homeless numbers rise in the Tri-Cities, the clash at Vista Way has highlighted Kennewick’s share of the problem.

The city hopes to mitigate the impact while addressing the root causes.

Hohenberg is creating a homeless crisis unit within the department’s noon to midnight shift.

Officers will collaborate with mental health professionals, rehab services, public health agencies and homeless advocates to help people get off the street. Sgts. Ken Lattin and Todd Dronen are leading the effort.

“There has to be a more holistic way of dealing with people in need,” said Hohenberg. “It needs to be a bigger approach.”

The city council may give officers another, more controversial, tool.

This week, the city council discussed a “sit-lie” ordinance during a workshop session. If approved, the sit-lie law will prohibit people from loitering on sidewalks and public places around River of Life during certain hours.

Officers could cite people or even charge those who resist with a misdemeanor, an arrestable offense.

Hohenberg said the department wants to solve the problem, not arrest the homeless.

“People don’t want to be arrested,” he said. “We don’t want to use this ordinance.”

The ordinance comes with a raft of exemptions. People are permitted to sit in wheelchairs, at bus stops and if they have a legitimate medical emergency or disability.

Critics say sit-lie rules criminalize poverty. But Kennewick city attorney Lisa Beaton said tailoring the rules to a specific area and a specific problem will allow the city to address legitimate concerns about public safety and the commercial viability of local businesses.

Robbins, of Dance Connection, said her optimism is returning.

A month ago, she said parents and young children who visit her studio after school and in the evening were frightened by the chaotic scene in the parking lot behind her building. She was losing students at an alarming rate.

Now, she’s looking forward to a back-to-school open house and showcasing what the business has to offer — dance lessons for children, adult exercise programs and more.

“We’re looking forward to doing business here,” she said.

Dance Connection began 14 years ago in the A-frame structure at Vista Way and Kennewick Avenue.

It moved to its current spot, a two-story space with multiple studios, four years ago, after it outgrew the A frame.

It faces Vista Way but customers park in back, near the church.

Robbins walked a thin line between compassion for the less fortunate and the cold reality of running a business catering to children and their protective parents.

Her office staff viewed the homeless people on the sidewalks as “neighbors” and tried to treat them that way.

“We made some efforts as a business to guide people,” she said. “The goal was never to insult them. It’s never been a ‘them versus us.’ But we’re trying to run a business.”

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514