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Homeless hangout is fraying nerves in Kennewick. Some businesses are moving

Human waste at the back door. Drug needles at the front. Strung-out visitors who want to recite poetry in a children’s boutique.

Vista Way businesses in central Kennewick say being neighbors with nonprofits serving the homeless is exhausting their compassion and hurting their livelihoods. At least one is moving to the other side of town.

The River of Life Metropolitan Community Church allows nonprofits to use the site for providing meals and a place for people to use a restroom, take a shower and wash their clothes.

The doors at the church at 2625 W. Bruneau Place near Vista Way and Highway 395 are open from 8 a.m. until after lunch, about 2 p.m.

That’s when the neighbors say the trouble starts because some don’t wander farther than the sidewalk across the street.

Those who are bad actors create mischief, leaving waste, drugs paraphernalia, dirty condoms and unnerved neighbors in their wake.

This week, some businesses used a social media blitz to get owners to the Kennewick City Council meeting, urging the city to take firmer steps to enforce nuisance laws.

They were joined by some homeless and their advocates, who asked the city to step up its support and consider creating a shelter.

The issue wasn’t on the council’s official agenda and no formal action was taken.

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The city of Kennewick closed this collection of travel trailers, motorhomes and tents behind Dayspring Ministries’ homeless facility on the 2600 block of West Bruneau Place near Vista Way in Kennewick. File Tri-City Herald

A New Start In Life is a newcomer to the River of Life campus. Led by Tobaski Snipes, a football coach at Kamiakin High School, the nonprofit helps homeless young adults to get back on their feet..

Snipes also dispatches lingerers when its time for people to leave the church property after lunch. There’s simply nowhere for people to go beyond loitering on nearby sidewalks and parks, he said.

“If you have a situation, please come up with a solution,” he told critics. “Go talk to the homeless.”

Tina Webb, 45, is one of them.

Sitting under a tree on a sleeping bag, she told the Herald on Wednesday that she’s been on the street in front of River of Life for about nine months.

The former Walla Walla resident blames long-term unemployment and being separated from her husband, who is also homeless, for her predicament.

“It’s a long story,” she said, declining to elaborate.

Her mother, who is caring for her teen sons, stops by periodically to bring food and water. She and her sidewalk neighbors combat the summer heat by sitting under trees and chewing on ice chips from a nearby gas station.

Webb said she uses marijuana but not illegal drugs and dreams of completing her associate’s degree and becoming a counselor.

Her message? Not everyone on the streets is a criminal.

“We need help. We need to not be looked down at,” she said.

As Webb and her street family took shelter from the midday sun, Snipes pointed out a rail-thin woman, about 18, scurrying through the parking lot. She can’t be forced into drug treatment, Snipes said.

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The 2018 Point in Time homeless survey showed 163 people living outdoors or in shelters in Benton and Franklin counties. This Army veteran told the Herald he became homeless after losing his job at a Pasco processing plant. File Tri-City Herald

For business owner Lisa Steele, Vista Way is no longer the right spot for Pipsqueaks, a children’s boutique. In September, her shop will move to North Louisiana Street, near Costco and Olive Garden.

Steele said her customers — mothers and children — generally don’t see what’s happening behind her business. But she’s tired of cleaning up garbage and worse, of the continuing conflict and of the people who wander into her store asking for money and more.

She worries about compassion fatigue.

“I feel heartless,” she said. “It makes me feel heartless.”

She said Vista Way was a good destination for customers in 2011 when she first opened. Now, she calls it “skid row” and has heard it called the “armpit of Kennewick.”

Nathan Lull, 38, is another frustrated business owner. He’s worked on Vista Way since he was 15 and helped at his grandparents’ store. Lull runs the business now. He renamed it Highland Organic Foods this spring.

The location is perfect, offering the right mix of visibility and easy access for customers seeking unusual healthy ingredients and organic foods.

But Lull said he’s had to clean human waste from an alcove area and manage the unease his employees feel when they encounter people who are mentally ill or high.

It’s worse in winter, when days are short and employees have to open and close the shop in the dark.

He says he’s been screamed at, then clarified. The person appeared to be mentally ill.

“I do not live in their shoes so I cannot judge where they’re coming from,” he said. At the same time, he said the people who are causing problems don’t seem to respect that he’s running a business, leasing space, keeping it presentable.

Lull has no plans to leave the neighborhood, at least not until he outgrows his current spot.

“It’s a contentious issue,” he said.

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Vista Way businesses in central Kennewick say being neighbors with nonprofits serving the homeless is exhausting their compassion and hurting their livelihoods. File Tri-City Herald

Lisa Beaton, Kennewick city attorney, said the city has limited tools when it comes to restricting where people can gather in public places.

Last year, it cracked down on a church-sponsored homeless camp at the River of Life property.

When Dayspring Ministries, which feeds the poor at River of Life, converted an upstairs room into a shelter, the city shut it down for wiring and access issues.

Later, it adopted an ordinance that limits how church-sponsored homeless camps operate..

It recently posted a notice in the Bruneau area notifying the homeless living there that it will remove garbage and personal items. The personal items will be stored at the police station for collection later.

Earlier this month, the city installed signs at high-traffic intersections urging people not to give money to panhandlers, a move it hopes will reduce an activity that remains legal. It can enforce nuisance laws against camping on sidewalks.

It could consider a sit-lie ordinance, which criminalizes sitting on sidewalks.

Beaton said Kennewick would have to narrowly tailor it to address a specific problem to avoid violating people’s rights.

There were 163 people living outdoors or in shelters in Benton and Franklin counties during the 2018 Point In Time survey. That’s down from 223 in 2017.

Point in Time is an official tally of homelessness coordinated by the Washington Department of Commerce.

The decrease doesn’t necessarily mean the picture is improving. The survey found 80 people living outdoors in the Tri-Cities in January, 52 more than the same day a year earlier when the weather was far worse.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514
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