MOSES LAKE — Attendance at a homeless forum in Moses Lake Tuesday evening was standing room only as community members packed the city council chambers for a community discussion about homelessness in the city.
The issue of homelessness came to the forefront of public discussion following an early September Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision. In Martin vs. City of Boise the justices ruled that city ordinances can violate the Eighth Amendment, which relates to cruel and unusual punishments, if they impose criminal penalties against homeless people who choose to sleep outdoors or on public property when a city doesn’t have a shelter for them to use.
After that ruling homeless camps started to become more visible in Moses Lake in particular and city officials decided not to enforce the city’s camping and park closure ordinances. The council has discussed options to address the public outcry, one of which is the prohibition of camping in city parks and closing the parks from 10 p.m.-6 a.m. Camping would be permitted during that time period in public spaces, but people would be required to gather their belongings by 6 a.m. each day.
The council formed a committee, comprised of council members and city staff, to study possible solutions and gather input from the public. Tuesday evening’s public forum was the first opportunity for the public to learn about the issue at hand, ask questions and propose solutions. Panel members at the forum included Shelia Chilson, representing the Homeless Taskforce of Grant County; Stephanie Bonwell, representing the Housing Authority of Grant County; Moses Lake Police Department Chief Kevin Fuhr; Tina Steinmetz, representing New Hope Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services; Gail Goodwin, representing Grant Integrated Services and Moses Lake council members Mike Riggs and Dean Hankins.
Bonwell explained that figures from last year’s Point in Time Homeless Count, which occurs on an annual basis, put Moses Lake’s total of unsheltered homeless individuals at 28, which was down from the 2016 total of 40 and the 2015 figure of 47.
“We are not talking about hundreds of individuals. We are talking about a relatively small population when we look in comparison to other counties,” Bonwell said.
Bonwell went through a number of different housing options that are available to the unsheltered homeless population.
“Contrary to popular belief there is a shelter in Grant County. There is a shelter in Moses Lake. We run a low-barrier emergency housing project for families with children. This program allows the family to stay up to 90 days and in that time they are required to come in and meet with my case managers at least on a weekly basis and most of the families involved in this project then do move up and receive assistance through rapid re-housing.”
The problem is that the nearest facility for the unsheltered homeless population in Moses Lake is out in the Larson community. There are different avenues to find temporary housing in the city, such as hotel vouchers, but in terms of a brick-and-mortar facility, there isn’t one. The Warming Center in Moses Lake, which opened over the weekend, isn’t properly constructed to be a shelter and is a costly operation even only being open a handful of months out of the year.
Hankins noted that if the city were to move forward with either finding a building that can be used as a homeless shelter, or constructing one, a portion of the funds would come from the city, but the rest would have to come via donations, because, he said, “we can’t afford it. We don’t have the money.”
“Getting the building, I think, would be the easy part,” chimed in Chilson. “It’s about a million dollars a year in operational funds.”
The move to have a homeless shelter in Moses Lake isn’t a new one. The Union Gospel Mission was approached in the past to discuss a shelter in the city, but the organization didn’t believe the city was big enough to have one.
“I think a shelter is a worthy cause. But it’s one of the reasons the Union Gospel Mission said really consider the resources of your community, because there are grant funds out there. There are some ways which we can fund a shelter, but it does rely on fundraising,” Chilson told the crowd.
The comments from the crowd were a mixed bag from homeless advocates and community members who are fed up and want to see a viable solution come about – and fast. A lot of the comments from the crowd centered around public safety and the image of the city.
“They don’t pay taxes, meaning they don’t pay for the pickup of garbage, pay taxes for the land or for their shelter. Nor do they pay taxes for that income, which we all know they make plenty of money since they deny food or work that I have offered this summer,” Moses Lake resident Pamela Matheson said.
Several people noted issues with certain homeless people defecating and urinating in public places, as well as the concern about drugs and homeless individuals who have criminal records and those who might be dealing with mental health issues. Fuhr said it has been discussed to have sharps containers at various location around the city for people to dispose of needles, which is a problem that was brought up several times Tuesday night.
A number of community members offered ideas of how to deal with some of the issues referenced above, such as having a location where the homeless can do laundry, having outdoor restroom facilities (Port-a-Potties) and a sort of system that rewards homeless people for cleaning up garbage and other tasks.
Several homeless people spoke up during the forum as well, detailing their experience in the city and some of the difficulties they have experienced.
“I was kind of disheartened earlier when the first comments started happening to hear there’s such a polarization between those who have a roof over their head and those who do not,” homeless woman Celeste Applegate said. “I just wish everybody would just look at us like we’re people because we are. We’re somebody’s kids, we’re somebody’s mom, somebody’s dad, somebody’s brother, sister. But by the grace of God, you guys get to go home tonight and I get to sleep in my car. Any one spin of the wheel of fortune, and it could be any one of you guys right next to me.”
The council’s homeless committee will be considering the input gathered from the forum as the council moves forward with discussing possible rule changes and ordinances.
Richard Byrd can be reached via email at email@example.com.